Fast-food chains in France are preparing for one of the biggest changes to their restaurants in decades as the government bans disposable plates, cups and tableware for anyone eating or drinking on-site.
Chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and Subway are facing what environmentalists have called a “revolution” on 1 January as pioneering new measures come into force in France to combat waste.
Much of the fast-food industry uses an economic model built on throwaway boxes, cups and packaging which customers tip from their tray into a bin straight after eating.
Under the new rules, any restaurant with more than 20 seats – including work canteens, bakery chains, fast-food and sushi outlets – will have to provide reusable, washable cups, plates, dishes and cutlery for customers eating in. French environmental groups called it a “complete paradigm shift” for the sector.
The roughly 30,000 fast-food outlets in France serve 6bn meals a year, generating an estimated 180,000 tonnes of waste. Environmental groups said 55% of that was generated by people eating in.
“We’re extremely happy that this is finally coming into force,” said Alice Elfassi, head of legal affairs for the NGO Zero Waste France, which pushed for the measure in a law that was published in 2020 but gave companies until 2023 to prepare. “Fast food is a sector that produces a lot of waste. Although single-use plastic had already been banned, it had been replaced by large amounts of throwaway products like cardboard, wood, bamboo, which we consider an unacceptable waste of resources.”
Zero Waste France and other groups are pressuring the government to carry out proper checks on whether fast food restaurants are respecting the law, and hand out fines if necessary. It said there should also be consideration of what alternatives are put in place. “Most fast-food restaurants won’t switch to classic, long-wearing glass or china that lasts years, they will opt for hard plastic and we have concerns about its durability – will it withstand hundreds of washes or will it be thrown out after only a few? We’ll be vigilant on that.”
The law concerns only tableware used by customers sitting down in restaurants. Anyone ordering takeaway, for example from McDonald’s, will continue to receive single-use packaging. But environmental groups hope that single-use takeaway packaging could also be changed in future, for example with customers leaving a deposit for reusable packaging and returning it.
The new law means eat-in burgers and sandwiches can no longer be served in a box but they can continue to be wrapped in paper. All other food – including chips, nuggets, pizzas, ice-creams or cakes – must be served on reusable tableware, and drinks in re-usable cups, washed at 60C as in traditional restaurants.
Several McDonald’s stores have recently put in place reusable plastic containers for fries, shaped to look exactly like the company’s traditional red disposable packaging. Burger King has trialled reusable bowls and cups with the company’s logo.
The challenge for many fast-food restaurants has been to find space to put in dishwasher facilities to clean the cups and plates, and also deploy staff to stop customers throwing them away or taking them home. Some young customers said they worried reusable cups wouldn’t be clean and preferred to get takeaway.
Four French environmental groups, including Surfrider and No Plastic In My Sea, published an open letter appealing to customers to stay vigilant and to stop eating in any restaurants where they noticed the new law wasn’t being upheld.