Yum! Brands, the parent company of Pizza Hut as well as chains like KFC and Taco Bell, announced on April 10 that it’s “reimagining” its packaging in favor of more sustainable options to reduce waste.

Yum! Brands has 55,000 Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill restaurants. According to the company, each brand is “transitioning away from plastics while simultaneously developing packaging solutions via a new policy that sets sustainability standards for its restaurants.”

The goal is to create packaging that will be recycled and go back into the supply chain, a process sometimes called circularity. The policy consists of three measures:

1. The elimination of unnecessary packaging
2. The shift to more sustainable materials
3. The support of better recycling systems and reusable products

The World Bank estimates that 2 billion tons of waste is generated, from both businesses and residences, across the globe each year.

“It’s our responsibility as the world’s largest restaurant company to help solve for the amount of waste that ends up in landfills,” said Jon Hixson, Yum! Brands’ chief sustainability officer and vice president of global government affairs. “And for years, we’ve been diligently working on this challenge, and it’s now been unified across the 150-plus countries and territories in which we operate, so that’s what’s really exciting.”

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The company said each brand is in a different stage in its sustainable packaging journey but now has one cohesive blueprint to follow to achieve the above-mentioned three goals. Here’s how they plan to do it:

Eliminate unnecessary packaging and shifting to sustainable materials: Unrecoverable plastics are often found in wrappers, cup lids, cutlery and bags and are prevalent around the world because they’re cheap to make. But they can’t be recycled and most likely end up in landfillls, which makes them a key focus area in Yum!’s new policy.

“At Pizza Hut, we’re lucky to be starting from a position of strength when it comes to plastics due to using primarily corrugated cardboard,” said James Watts, Pizza Hut’s global chief of people and environmental, social and governance (ESG) officer. He said plastics in packaging have been completely eliminated from Pizza Hut restaurants in India and Brunei. Pizza Huts in New Zealand and Australia are close to the complete removal of consumer-facing plastics and are 95% and 90% plastic-free, respectively, he added.

“We remain focused on closing the gaps that exist around unnecessary plastics and have also started to explore how we can use our packaging as a way to educate customers on how to recycle them,” Watts said.

Pizza Hut’s sister brands—KFC, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill—are also in the process of removing unrecoverable plastics from their packaging.

With 27,000 restaurants across 147 countries, KFC is taking “a mindful approach” when it comes to transitioning to more sustainable materials, according to KFC Global Director of Sustainability & Packaging Susan Miles. Globally, the brand has moved from expanded polystyrene plastic (styrofoam) to more recyclable plastic or fiber-based containers for its side items and has purchased most of its paper-based packaging with fiber from responsibly managed forests and recycled sources.

Also, several KFC markets have eliminated plastic straws, cutlery and bags. But, Miles said, that’s just the start, and the brand is now looking to adopt additional practices developed in its individual markets, like a widely recyclable, plastic-free bucket in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and Canada’s compostable poutine bucket made of bamboo.

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this photo shows Soft Tacos With Ground Beef, Lettuce, Tomato, Onions and Cheese

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For its part, Taco Bell is rolling out recyclable wraps and bags for its burritos, tacos, Crunchwraps and more. And The Habit Burger Grill transitioned from plastic to-go bags to paper in 2022, eliminating 288,000 pounds of plastic in the U.S. annually, the company said. The brand also says it sources more than 97% of its paper-based packaging from responsibly managed forests and recycled sources.

“These are exciting changes for us because so much of our brand is tied to authenticity and living with purpose, just as our founders did,” said The Habit Burger Grill Chief Operating Officer Iwona Alter. “Creating a platform for packaging that is focused on sustainability ensures that we can continue to serve our guests delicious food that people trust.”

Recycling and reusables: Not everything in each brand’s packaging suite can be eliminated or sustainably sourced, according to a Yum! press release. This is where the implementation of recycling programs can make a difference.
In addition to converting consumer-facing packaging to recyclable, compostable or reusable materials, Taco Bell is adding recycling and/or composting bins in its restaurants where infrastructure permits. Taco Bell also provided a recycling option for its sauce packets in the U.S., giving customers the ability to mail in used sauce packets for recycling, thanks to a partnership with TerraCycle, a New Jersey-based company known for recycling hard-to-recycle materials.

“The TerraCycle partnership is one that consumers are enthusiastic about,” said Missy Schaaphok, Taco Bell’s director of global nutrition and sustainability. “But the big unlock with this program is the fact that we’ve expanded it to include sauce packets of any kind and brand, not just Taco Bell’s. At the same time, we’re also exploring other ways to bring our fans the sauce they love with less waste.”

Pizza Hut also is focused on making its packaging, primarily made up of corrugated cardboard, more recyclable. Pizza boxes in Australia are made from 100% recycled content while that number is up to 70% in the U.K., the company says. At the same time, the brand is looking to educate consumers and work with groups that influence local governments and municipalities on the recyclability of its cardboard pizza boxes.

Challenges still exist as the brands must work around fragmented regulations worldwide related to packaging and sustainability. “There has been a lot of progress made, at the global level, in terms of creating a more sustainable ecosystem of products and operational efficiencies throughout our restaurant system,” Hixson said. “At Yum!, we’re committed to good growth. We can’t do that without a plan to preserve our planet. From our packaging initiatives to the work we’re doing on forest stewardship and climate change, we are dedicated to making progress on our Recipe for Good.”

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