Pizza Hut experiments with a startup’s sustainable food boxes

Fast food giant Pizza Hut announced this week its pilot of the signature Zume pizza box.
Compostable round pizza box featuring the Pizza Hut logo
Compostable Zume packaging is being trialled by Pizza Hut. Image: TechCrunch

What is a Zume pizza box and why is it relevant?

Zume was founded in 2015, with a mission to ‘change the landscape’ for food brands. They use data to track how food is consumed, and analyse this to help streamline supply chains throughout the food industry.

Their driving mission is to create a ‘sustainability fabric‘; thus creating a manageable and sustainable solution. Zume aims to do this via technological innovation and an in-depth analysis of how the food industry operates.

Overall, they wish to replace one billion plastic containers by next year.

Zume Source Packaging uses waste materials, such as bamboo and straw to manufacture fully compostable packaging to replace plastics. These materials can be easily broken down, require minimal energy to produce, and waste products are then re-purposed in effect to grow more food.

Zume compostable packaging food boxes and trays
Zume packaging is completely compostable. Image: Zume

How big is the fast food plastic problem?

It’s big. Really big. The Plastic Pollution Coalition publish a ranking of all the big US fast food outlets against their contributions to global plastic waste. Currently ranked 17th, Pizza Hut has 16,976 stores, and at the time of the study had only committed to banning plastic straws this year in Romania and Moldova.

Small eco-conscious retailers might be going the extra mile, but it needs the big chains to commit to sustainable sourcing and production to make a big difference. We all know how plastics stagnate our ecosystem, and it looks like the trend is starting to turn in line with public opinion towards more environmentally processes.

Wheelie bin filled with plastic waste
The fast food industry produces around 32 billion lbs of plastic waste per year in the US alone. Image: Interesting Engineering

A QSR audit project helps define the scale of the problem, and the enormity of the impact that big fast food chains could really make.

A reported 6% of global oil production is used in production of plastics. The result; 390 million tonnes of carbon dioxide released into our atmosphere every year.

What are the benefits to Pizza Hut of launching their Zume pilot?

For now this is just a pilot at one location in Phoenix, Arizona. Pizza Hut are also testing out vegan meat alternatives at the same time.

The hope is that finding sustainable packaging options, and offering a variety of choice to suit different dietary requirements will set Pizza Hut apart from their competition.

Partnering with Zume is bound to be good PR due to their fast growing reputation for beneficial environmental innovation. Zume recently announced a partnership with smaller chain &Pizza and also run mobile robotic Zume kitchens.

Zume pizza website banner showing lots of different people eating pizza
Zume pizza uses automated ovens to deliver orders via mobile pizza kitchens. Image: Zume Pizza

How does this stand to impact the Pizza Hut enterprise?

It’s not been the easiest few years for Pizza Hut. In 2018 they announced the closure of hundreds of US restaurants to focus on their take out and delivery business.

Their profits nosedived in 2017 from a £5.22m profit in 2016 to a £7.51m loss in 2017. This recovered slightly with a smaller loss of £6.16m in 2018 but clearly something drastic has to happen to turn those fortunes around.

The company is now working hard at their CSR, perhaps with a view to re-branding as a healthier, more environmentally friendly fast food alternative. This includes signing up to the UK Plastics Pact, banning plastic straws and switching their glass water bottles for recyclable plastic.

McDonalds happy meal with a book instead of a plastic toy
Fast food giants McDonalds and Burger King have scrapped their plastic kids toys. Image: McDonalds

Are all fast food retailers following suit?

There is a definite trend here. Both Burger King and McDonalds have announced that they will replace free kids toys with plastic alternatives to cut down on waste.

McDonalds expect to have paper straws throughout their UK branches by the end of the year. All Bar One bar chain started the #strawssuck campaign and started replacing plastic straws with paper back in 2017. Pizza Express now only offer biodegradable straws, and Wagamama offers them but only if a customer asks.

Nandos have been leading the way in responsible food supply, using only Forest Stewardship Council approved paper straws, ensuring all new products are delivered only in recyclable materials, and are also a member of the UK Plastics Pact.

We will wait and see whether Pizza Hut roll out their compostable packaging following this pilot, but whether it is enough to revolutionise the brand image remains to be seen.

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