The last straw: How Pizza Hut is cutting plastic waste

Pizza hut and straws
Shutterstock James R. Martin

Around three years ago, Pizza Hut was managing to stop around 95 percent of its waste from going to landfill. The effort of putting in place a segregated waste bin system for recycling, composting and rubbish across its branches, it seemed, was paying off.

But then TV chef Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall presented a documentary on the BBC drawing attention to the massive problem of coffee cups, which due to their combination of plastic and cardboard rendering them difficult to recycle, largely end up simply being thrown in the waste bin. The revelation pricked up the ears of supply chain head Steve Packer.

"We started asking lots of complicated questions to some very clever people, and we suddenly realized how incompetent we were," Packer tells BusinessGreen. "There are a lot of organizations out there working to do the right thing — doing lots of segregating waste — but I think a lot of people then stop there. They think once they've put something in a recycling bin, they're done."

Packer decided to take a closer look at Pizza Hut's waste policies and supply chain to analyze precisely where all the rubbish generated by around 20 million customers across 260 U.K. restaurants each year was ending up.

"When the coffee cup issue was suddenly hot in the press, we then suddenly realized that if that is hard to recycle, then what else is like that?" Packer said. "So we actually spent a day or so with someone from our waste contractor, who came down to our restaurants to look at every single piece of packaging we use. We wanted to know what our equivalent of the coffee cup was — what are the things we buy in which are almost impossible to recycle, and why?"

With such a large chain of branches run by around 8,000 staff, structural and procedural changes take a long time to bed in, meaning decisions such as how best to dispose of waste have to be very carefully thought through. As Packer said: "If you make a bad decision, unwinding it is costly and complicated."

From speaking to Pizza Hut's waste contractors Veolia, Packer learned that while most of the company's waste was not being sent to landfill, a huge amount still simply was being incinerated for energy recovery, and relatively little was recycled or composted. In fact, even waste streams intended for recycling or food waste energy recovery often could be contaminated and would have to be sent to an energy-from-waste facility anyway. "Diversion from landfill is not the best metric. The best metric is your true recycling rates, and I don't know a single business out there that knows that number," Packer admitted.

Packer then spoke to Pizza Hut's suppliers — those who made the packaging for products the company uses — and discovered a disconnect between what was being designed for recyclability at one end and what actually could be recycled by waste companies at the other end. There was a clear need, he decided, to join up and improve dialogue across the supply chain.

"One of the most valuable conversations we've had in the last three years is we sat down with our waste management contractor and the producer of our products and packaging, so that when they start designing things they can actually start to think about the infrastructure," Packer explained. "It's great designing things which can be technically recycled or composted, but if at the end of it you don't know what the infrastructure constraints are, it's a challenge."

As an example of changes made by the company since, Packer drew attention to one item in particular which has become a major bone of contention for the hospitality sector the past year: the humble plastic straw.

Pizza Hut has to provide straws in its restaurants to accommodate people with disabilities who otherwise may struggle to drink fluids. But around six months ago, the company eradicated plastic straws from its U.K. branches, replacing them with paper straws. Moreover, instead of continuing to place straws next to the drinks dispensers for customers to take as they please, Pizza Hut moved them to the bar area so that they must be requested. The result: plastic-free straws on top of a 90 percent reduction in straw use overall.

It wasn't an easy decision, however. As well as paper straws, Packer and his team had looked at using biodegradable cornstarch PLA straws, but both options represented a perfect plastic replacement, demonstrating the complex difficulties companies face in the drive to move away from single-use plastics.

Firstly, both paper and PLA straws still look like typical plastic straws to the naked eye. And, if plastic ends up in a load of food waste, it contaminates the load, which then has to be thrown away rather than sent for composting or to an anaerobic digestion facility. So if PLA or paper straws are mixed in with food waste, Pizza Hut's waste contractors have to assume the worst — that they could be plastic — and the load is considered contaminated. As such, used Pizza Hut straws are still thrown in the normal rubbish bin and sent for recovery, rather than mixed in with — and risk contaminating — food waste which is composted or sent for anaerobic digestion.

Yet for the PLA option, this would have been far from an ideal situation either, Packer explained. "With PLA, if the infrastructure was there to capture every PLA straw in the country, it would be a fabulous product," he said. "The reality is that it gets out into the environment, it then biodegrades and gives off methane. That methane is much more damaging than the CO2 of a plastic straw. But a plastic straw is in the environment forever, whereas a PLA straw will biodegrade. On the other hand, if they get into the ocean, plastic is worse because it takes thousands of years whereas the PLA straw will be ready in six months."

It's a tough balancing act. PLA is better for the scourge of ocean plastic, but in certain situations, it actually could be worst for global warming than plastic. So in the end, therefore, Pizza Hut opted to go with paper straws, even if the move costs a fraction more money.

"Even only buying 10 percent of the straws we did use, the paper we have to buy and the extra time you need to take them over from the bar area to the guest is probably more expensive than just buying millions of plastic straws, which are really cheap," Packer explained. "It goes to show that sometimes doing the right thing can actually be more expensive."

Of course, said Packer, there's "no right or wrong answer," and the options Pizza Hut has taken on plastic waste won't suit every business. But overall Packer argued the chain is doing what it can on waste given the current U.K. landscape, and now it is equipped with greater knowledge of its supply chain, which means it is better positioned to make further improvements in the future.

Yet it seems clear that like many others in the hospitality sector and beyond, Pizza Hut is somewhat hamstrung at present by a lack of appropriate recycling infrastructure, joined-up thinking across supply chains and coherent national policy, without which the creation of a truly circular economy is likely to remain a pipe dream.

"This is where I think large players like ourselves can't do it on our own — we need manufacturers, retailers, government and the scientific community stepping in to find solutions," Packer argued, although he is hopeful the recently launched Plastics Pact may deliver a much-needed step in the right direction. "If we can do even half the stuff they were talking about [at the Plastics Pact launch], we can make a big movement. The only concern I have is that we mustn't lose sight of the food waste problem."

Food waste, of course, is another headache altogether for Packer, his team and the wider hospitality industry, demonstrating how fraught with complexity the path towards a circular economy truly is. But while Pizza Hut's waste dilemmas may only be one slice of a bigger pie, it does seem that industry and consumers are at least starting to view waste as a serious problem that needs a better solution.

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