Paper or Plastic? KFC Introduces Reusable Plastic Packaging

Once upon a time, before decent grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s existed, families back in the 1970s and 1980s would climb into their wood paneled station wagons for a picnic or day at the beach, and would stop by a Kentucky Friend Chicken for a bucket of chicken.  No one will admit it now, but way back when, tofu was known as “bean curd” at Asian restaurants and kale was what restaurants used to decorate the salad bar.  Now thanks to gourmet hot food bars and semi-prepared food products, some would say our tastes have shifted a tad.  But what is now KFC still has legs, and is a vital part of the US$11 billion Yum! Brands empire.

KFC has been the target of many activists, or is avoided by others all together, based on its animal rights record, bad PR from hygiene and workers’ rights issues, and its effect on the environment, from waste at processing plants to alleged destruction of Amazonian rainforest, where soy for chicken feed is grown.  Now the company that has introduced generations to oddly-shaped chicken parts will show that is takes sustainability seriously.  Don’t count on organic chicken appearing on the menu anytime soon, but KFC has introduced more sustainable and reusable content.

By 2011, KFC claims that the company will reduce the use of foam by over 60% and total plastic use by 17%.  Part of the push will be an introduction of reusable packaging.  Currently 60% of its restaurants serve some of its sides in colorful plastic containers—all restaurants will feature them by next year.  The company hopes that customers will reuse, and then recycle the containers.  KFC touts other benefits as well, such as reduced shipping cubes, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, and less energy required to manufacture these spry containers.  The finger licking good paper and cardboard based packaging materials will include more recycled and postconsumer content, too.

Clearly customers and critics will have some questions.  First, about those who fit the profile of fast food customers: will they bother to take the reusable containers back to the office or home with them?  And if they do, the concern over BPA in plastic (which is why our household is phasing out plastic while refusing to reheat anything in that material), true or overblown, will lead others to question whether this is replacing one type of trash with another.  So will KFC encourage stores to recycle?

Then there is that iconic, all-American bucket.  The lid has 30% of recycled material.  But what about the bucket?

Some of the paper material is also Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified, which will draw the ire of some sustainability experts.  The SFI has come under fire for its ties to the timber industry, and both the FTC and IRS have complained about the organization’s claim to be a “charity” or lack of transparency in its forest certification process.  While the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is input from stakeholders of various backgrounds, the SFI is still timber-industry sponsored.

Based on KFC’s and the SFI’s response and pushback to similar issues in the past, the chances of discovering that eleven herbs and spices formula will occur before KFC satisfies its critics anytime soon.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.