By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

KFC's new reusable container

Fried chicken mega-chain KFC has swallowed its share of criticism recently.  The introduction of its artery-challenging  “double down” bunless sandwich this year left health experts slack-jawed. Some customers gobbled up its 32 grams of fat, but few argued that this “sandwich” of two deep-fried chicken patties smushed together with cheese and bacon would help anyone with their body mass index.

Next, KFC came in for criticism of its unsustainably sourced paper buckets. The Dogwood Alliance attacked the fast food chain for using paper that was not certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), widely used by Walmart and others to verify its paper and wood products come from well-managed forests. (KFC uses a different certifier, which Dogwood claimed was a cover for bad practices.)

KFC may be trying to turn its image around with a series of packaging changes. The one it’s crowing about most is a plastic side dish container with a red lid that the company says is the fast food industry’s first reusable container.

The polypropylene container won an award for KFC at the 2010 Greener Package Awards.

KFC has field tested the packages and expects to use them nationally by early 2011.

“Through research, we found that consumers prefer reusable containers because it gives them control of how the item is reused or disposed of after purchase,” said Susan Miles, KFC Engineering Manager, in a news release today. “Our research also showed that 60 percent of consumers keep a reusable container for at least six weeks.”

If that’s the case — that consumers will keep these containers for at least six weeks, then KFC may help consumers reduce their waste with a product that could double up (or down) as a container in kids’ lunches or for leftovers at home.

But if consumers don’t reuse this product: Watch out! The world will have to find a place for yet more plastic waste. And this particular variety of plastic, polypropylene or #5, is not widely recycled. Unlike the the #1 and #2 plastic used in milk jugs, soda bottles and other household containers, #5 plastic does not enjoy much after-market demand.

To be honest about it, even recycling is no panacea for plastic. The Ecology Center notes in a piece about the “Misconceptions about Plastics and Plastics Recycling” that many items made from recycled plastic cannot themselves be recycled, making plastics recycling a temporary diversion of waste. (Better than the alternative of tossing plastic containers into the ocean, however.)

By contrast, compostable or biodegradable containers (made from sustainable forests or upcycled paper or food waste) may have a better life cycle story. Food retailers like Whole Foods Markets have begun using this type of packaging in their cafes.

Considering the baggage of plastic containers, KFC might want to trumpet some of the other packaging changes it is making, such as its plan to reduce foam packaging by 62 percent by the end of this year. Foam, or polystyrene, is another petroleum-based product (like plastic) that’s not biodegradable and can be expected to persist in landfills for hundreds of years. Getting rid of foam is good. Its the equivalent of empty calories. Send it wherever those buns went.

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