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last updated 10/06/2018

Tipping point on plastic - how are franchises coping?

last updated 10/06/2018

30 May 2018 - Consumers and councils are turning on the humble plastic straw. Franchises are keen to respond, but their sheer size can mean supply issues slow them down.

Environmentally-conscious independent outlets such as Orewa Surf Club are offering consumers a choice - supply issues mean franchises may have to play catch-up

After years of concern, the tide seems to be turning on use of conventional plastics in packaging. Public opinion reached the tipping point after David Attenborough's BBC series Blue Planet II was broadcast in November, with makers saying ‘there was rarely a time when they were filming that they didn't come across plastic in the sea’ and an episode showing a hawksbill turtle caught up in a plastic sack.

New Zealand supermarkets have already announced that the one-use plastic bag is on its way out, and attention is now turning to plastic straws. Wellington has banned the use of plastic straws in its waterfront cafes and there are moves to make the whole city straw-free. But the speed of the trend is causing problems; a couple of months ago, a franchisor told us that demand for non-plastic alternatives had increased to the extent where suppliers were struggling to keep up. The result was that, because of the sheer volume the franchise required, they weren’t able to make the change as quickly as they might like.

Wanting to change

The Coffee Club New Zealand is planning to phase out the use of plastic straws but hasn’t managed it yet because of supply issues. ‘We wanted to change to eco-friendly paper straws a few months back but due to the high demand and large size of The Coffee Club group, our supplier simply didn’t have sufficient stock for us to make this switch,’ says Andy Lucas, director of the New Zealand master franchise company.

‘In fact. it has been postponed twice already as we wait for the supplier to advise to have sufficient stock on hand – early June is what we have been advised. The new straws will be made with paper sourced from managed plantations, are carbon neutral and commercially compostable and recyclable. 

‘We will also be taking straws off a range of drinks (those that we believe can be easily consumed without a straw) – this will reduce the use of straws even once we’ve moved to an eco straw. Operationally, we don’t see any major issues for franchisees.’

Commitment takes time

New Zealanders reportedly use 540 million straws a year – enough to circumnavigate the planet two-and-a-half times, which is exactly what they are doing, it seems. As always, McDonald’s is the name on everyone’s lips, especially after a proposal to ban using plastic straws in their restaurants was voted down by shareholders in the US recently. McDonald's told shareholders that it already has a goal that by 2025, ‘all of McDonald's guest packaging (including straws) will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources,’ and didn’t want a single issue to detract from its overall commitment.

‘In New Zealand, we already have a few restaurants where they’ve stopped giving out straws by default,’ says Simon Kenny, the Head of Communications for McDonald’s NZ. ‘The idea there is that while our packaging suppliers work on new fibre-based straws, or other packaging that does not require a straw, we could reduce the number of straws used by customer behaviour change. Reports back from the restaurants are that after a few months local customers are changing habits and there’s been a reduction in straw use. The trial is also being run in Rangiora, and we’re assessing next steps.

‘We did some waste audits a few years ago, and about 60 percent of the waste generated by our restaurants is back of house, where we’ve got good processes to manage waste. Front of house is covered by the global commitment, and is something we’re working on. ‘

Thumbs-up from consumers

But are consumers prepared to wait seven years to see change? Cindy Buell of Mariposa Restaurant Holdings, which owns the Mexicali Fresh and Burger Wisconsin franchise brands, says, ‘We have phased out the use of plastic straws in both brands. Each store is handling the transition on their own with the goal of being plastic-free this year. I think most already are.

At Burger Wisconsin we have paper straws behind the counter and we give them to people if they ask for them. At Mexicali Fresh, we don’t provide straws unless they are asked for. All stores are using coloured paper straws.’

The brand engages with its customers through energetic use of social media, which provides instant feedback on such initiatives. ‘When we announced this move several months ago on social media our customers were delighted and gave us lots of enthusiastic “thumbs-ups”, Cindy reports.

Burger Wisconsin's 'Straws Suck' stand gained immediate customer approval, as Facebook stats prove

It’s clear the plastic straw’s days are numbered. The question is, what’s next – and will franchisors and their suppliers be able to move fast enough to be seen as leading the trend, not following?

See how Blue Planet II changed attitudes to plastic pollution - video

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