In Industry First, Taco Bell Tries To Clean Up Single-Use Sauces

You know those annoying little packets of fast-food sauces and condiments that clutter up gutters and parking lots around the world? Taco Bell sees them too, and in a first for the QSR industry, it’s working with TerraCycle to find ways to keep its recycling out of landfills. 

The Irvine, California-based fast-food chain reports it cranks out 8.2 billion of its hot sauce packet annually. It says it will reveal more details about the pilot project later this year, promising the program will include free shipping and be easy for customers. 

TerraCycle, a waste management company that already partners with major brands like Walmart, Kroger and Garnier, focuses on hard-to-recycle waste products. It attempts to solve some of the biggest challenges in recycling, a complex process that often involves collection, cleaning, melting and remodeling.



“In the food industry today, there is no widely available solution for recycling the flexible film packets that are so commonly used for condiments,” says Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s global chief food innovation officer, adding that the recycling effort will be “as bold and innovative as our menu.”

The partnership is part of the company's goal of making all of its consumer-facing packaging either recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. Taco Bell is owned by Yum Brands, which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut.

Taco Bell’s Earth Week-themed announcement comes amid a deluge of sustainability commitments in the industry. That includes Starbucks’ announcement that it is testing a Borrow-a-Cup program in Seattle stores. Chipotle, meanwhile, said it has achieved a 51% waste diversion rate through recycling, composting and waste-to-energy programs, a goal it established back in 2018. 

Industry experts say sustainability efforts have shifted substantially since the pandemic. According to the National Restaurant Association,  before COVID-19, chains traditionally assessed packaging based on performance, appearance/presentation, cost, ease of use for staff and ease of use for consumers.

Now such factors as consumer confidence in and assurance of safety, a lower number of touchpoints (to reduce handling), tamper-resistant packages and contactless pickup are driving decisions, according to a presentation to the association’s members by Ashley Elzinga, director of sustainability and outreach for the Foodservice Packaging Institute.

And while many sustainability practices got put on hold during the pandemic, eco-consciousness is back on the menu. “Customers, especially millennials and Gen Zs, want restaurants to practice sustainability and be socially responsible,” the National Restaurant Association says. Also, there are now more than 150 proposed pieces of legislation in 30 states related to food-service packaging.

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