Unwrapping Quiznos' Greener Packaging

Cradle to Cradle

Unwrapping Quiznos' Greener Packaging

People sometimes say we need to save the planet for our kids. I sometimes think our kids are going to save us.

If you doubt it, ask Rick Schaden. Schaden is CEO of Quiznos, the fast-food chain best known for its toasted subs, and the father of five children, ages 3 to 19. Today, Quiznos is rolling out new packaging ("Eat Toasty, Be Green") made from renewable or recycled content that will reduce the chain's environmental footprint.

When we spoke by phone yesterday, I asked what led him to make the changes.

"Believe it or not, I was home watching a movie called 'Wall-E' with my kids," Schaden said. "You think about LEED-certified buildings and hybrid electric cars and all these really high-tech things, and then you watch 'Wall-E' and the world is buried in trash."

The Disney-Pixar animated movie is the story of a robot named Wall-E, who is designed to clean up an Earth that has been overwhelmed by garbage.

His kids had always pushed Schaden to be more green at home. "My kids make sure everything is sorted and separated. If anyone in my house would dare to put a plastic bottle in the trash, my 14-year-old would give him a smack," he said. "It's the culture of the new generation. It tells you that's where consumers are heading."

So, he figured, why not see what could be done at Quiznos, where he is a large shareholder, and where he returned as CEO, after some time away, just about a year ago.

"We're about 50 percent takeout," Schaden told me. "We produce a lot of disposables. That's our biggest contribution to the waste stream."

Quiznos says the new packaging includes:

•  100 percent compostable wax-coated paper cups
•  Pulp salad bowls made from renewable sugarcane
•  Plastic lids made of 30 percent post-consumer recycled PET bottles
•  Napkins made from 100 percent recycled material and fibers (90 percent post consumer)
•  Catering lunch boxes made of 100 percent recycled paperboard (35 percent post consumer)

Meanwhile, Quiznos "team members" will "embrace the green shift" by moving to uniforms made 100 percent from recycled soda pop bottles.

Now, this makes for a nice story, doesn't it? Teenage kids inspire CEO-dad to turn 4,000 or so restaurants green. But stop and think for a moment. "Wall-E" was released in 2008 -- two years after "An Inconvenient Truth," three years after GE's ecomagination and Walmart's big sustainability push, about a decade after Starbucks began a long effort to develop a recyclable hot cup, and nearly 20 years — 20 years! — since McDonald's launched a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce its packaging and waste. Quiznos hired an consulting firm to help reduce its packaging, but it hasn't brought in any independent third-parties to measure or verify its impact.

Then there's this: As best as I can tell, the waste reduction effort is a standalone effort, and not part of a comprehensive environmental strategy. Quiznos doesn't measure its carbon dioxide emissions. It hasn't pledged to reduce them. Nor has the company talked publicly about energy efficiency in its stores (all those toasters use electricity), let alone the impact of its supply chain. McDonald's, the restaurant industry leader, takes a far more comprehensive approach to corporate responsibility.

To his credit, Schaden says Quiznos is just getting started. "This is really the beginning of a journey for us," he said. Among other things, he said, Quiznos is working with its landlords and with municipalities to encourage more reycling. Giving customers compostable cups does no good if the cups wind up in landfills.

Schaden also said the company is encouraged about doing more because its green packaging work hasn't added costs to its operations. For example, Quiznos is replacing the paper wrappers for its sandwiches with sleeves that use less material and, it turns out, make it easier to eat a sub while on the go. "It's got some nice consumer utility," Schaden said, "and it's good for the planet."

Because Quiznos is so big -- right behind Subway, in the so-called Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) category -- its commitment to recycled product will make a difference. It will stimulate the demand for recycled content that's needed to drive up recycling rates.

So we'll give Quiznos a muted cheer for getting started down the road to "green," while recognizing that big companies in all industries need to move farther and faster than this, given the scale of our environmental problems.

Otherwise, we'll all be toast.

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.