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Taco Bell Puts Sustainable Packaging to the Test: Q&A with Missy Schaaphok

Taco Bell Missy SchaaphokTaco Bell just set a target of making all consumer-facing packaging recyclable, compostable, or reusable worldwide by 2025. The transition won’t be a small one. In the United States alone, the company has more than 7,000 restaurants and serves 47 million people weekly. Beyond the US, the brand has 600 restaurants in 30 countries.

“Our customers care about what’s in their food, how it’s made, and how it’s packaged,” says Missy Schaaphok, manager of global nutrition and sustainability for Taco Bell. Her responsibilities include product development and compliance, both internal and external.

We recently caught up with Schaaphok to get an inside look at the quick service restaurant chain’s strategy for achieving their packaging goals.

What prompted the new goals?

With growing sustainability concerns including plastic use and recycling practices, we wanted to make these commitments so our fans don’t have to choose between ‘craveability’ and responsible dining. We have a responsibility to leave a lighter footprint on the Earth.

On top of that, there’s legislation happening across the US, mostly in the coastal states, related to packaging. Over the past few years, we’ve been working to ensure that all of our restaurants are in compliance. This is starting to spread. We’re going to have to go beyond the coastal communities, make bigger changes, and push the envelope within the QSR industry.

How are you approaching the changing rules?

We want to ensure that our customers have the best experience. Some of the legislation doesn’t opt into that so we’ve started doing focus groups and talking to customers.

Seventy-five percent of our business is drive-through. Straws are important to our customers because they’re in their cars. They want something that’s durable — and that they can recycle or compost. People actually tell us they like to chew on the straw, so we need to make sure the straw is potentially chewable as well.

What are the main advantages for Taco Bell in making packaging sustainable, especially financial?

They allow us to address our customers’ growing sustainability concerns. The other advantage is that they send an aspirational signal to the industry.

The finance piece can be a bit eye-opening when you first get started, but it’s a balancing act. Taco Bell is part of Yum Brands, which also includes KFC and Pizza Hut, so we’ll be able to leverage our scale in the supply chain to ensure that we don’t pass that cost onto the consumer.

Where are you now in relation to your 2025 goal?

Over the past two years we have made progress. In 2018, we rolled out our 100% recyclable cold beverage cups and lids, minus the straw. Prior to that we went from plastic bags to paper bags. Yum joined the NextGen Cup Challenge and we’ve started rolling out in-store recycling, mainly where legislation exists in areas like New York, Minneapolis, California, and Seattle.

We’re kickstarting the rest of our packaging suite — anything that isn’t recyclable or compostable. To achieve these goals, we’re collaborating with our sister brands, suppliers, franchisees, and industry partners around the globe to figure out eco-friendly products and do regional tests. We’re starting to formulate what that’s going to look like.

You mentioned suppliers — how are they involved?

We have great relationships with our suppliers. It’s not like they’re waiting for us to ask them for ideas. They’re proactively reaching out and showing us new innovations, technologies, substrates, things we’d never heard of before. We are leveraging them a lot.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

One of the major challenges is hitting all of our sustainability objectives without compromising on the functionality or the customer experience. Going from plastic to fiber-based is a completely different experience. There’s a lot we have to consider. That’s why we’re going to do regional tests this year to see what resonates.

Then, underlying this, are the unique regulations popping up across the globe. In some cases, each municipality has its own set of regulations. That’s an ongoing challenge.

How do you keep an eye on all the regulations?

My team basically developed our own tracking system. It is a lot of manual work, but I feel like we have a good rhythm now. We get alerts through different organizations that tell us what’s coming. We work closely with legal to make sure that we’re understanding it. Then we have a cross-functional team that will execute against the compliance to make sure the restaurants have what they need.

Our franchisees are really good, too. They’re in the local communities so a lot of times they’re informing us.

Do you have advice for fellow QSR executives who are rethinking packaging?

Understand your customer. What experience are they hoping to have? What key attributes are important to them?

Robust supplier relationships are important because they’re the ones who are going to create that new solve for you. Equally important are external partnerships, being part of an industry collaboration where you can share best practices and technologies, and understand what’s possible for your brand.

Lastly, when it comes to the packaging itself, consider all options. This change in the industry and in the environment is forcing us to rethink things in a way we never have before. It’s actually a great opportunity.

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