Facing Criticism, KFC Intros Eco-Friendly Packaging

KFC, perhaps best known these days for the excessive Double Down fried chicken sandwich, is replacing its old Styrofoam side dish containers with reusable eco-friendly ones to cut down on packaging waste.

The move—part of a larger recycling initiative—comes on the heels of a campaign from Dogwood Alliance, a watchdog group, which criticizes the chain and its red-and-white buckets for contributing to the destruction of southern U.S. forests.

Dogwood’s latest barbs, under the banner, “Kentucky Fried Forest,” have used the iconic Col. Sanders logo doctored with a chainsaw to draw attention to what it calls “clear-cutting” virgin forests. The group lays blame on the fast food industry as a whole, but singles out Yum! Brands’ KFC because of its size and southern roots.

“[The brand is] motivated by a real commitment to reduce our use of nonrenewable resources. The activities of special interest groups have no impact on the work KFC is doing to reduce the brand’s environmental footprint,” KFC said in a statement.

KFC isn’t the only one feeling the heat. JoAnn Hines, an industry consultant, said marketers of all stripes are responding to public pressure for more eco-friendly packaging, with bio-based alternatives to Styrofoam and other old-school materials coming out “fast and furious.”

Pizza chains have started using “green” boxes of recycled paperboard that breaks into plates, she said, and more innovation is expected across the board (as long as the companies can convert for a reasonable price). Hines added: “[Companies] always consider the bottom line. But they know it gives them a marketing edge to have packaging that’s environmentally friendly.”

KFC tested its recyclable containers in five markets this spring. All its locations will use the red-topped tubs for side orders like mashed potatoes and coleslaw by early next year. The containers recently won a 2010 Greener Package Award, and they’re part of an overall push by the chain to phase out foam packages, replace plastic plates with paper boxes and reduce dependence on nonrenewable resources.

The goal is to reduce plastic use by 17 percent within the next few months and its foam packaging by 62 percent by next year, said Megan Isaac, KFC’s senior marketing manager. KFC, under its “Reuse, renew, rejoice” initiative, said it would continue to look for ways to trim its carbon footprint.

Greener Package, an independent group devoted to sustainable packaging, said KFC’s reusable containers—which can go in the dishwasher and microwave—take less energy to produce and generate fewer greenhouse gases. The group called the containers an example of “best practices” for other companies to follow.

Dogwood Alliance, which staged a summer protest outside KFC’s Louisville, Ky.-based headquarters, has nudged companies like Sony and Staples to adopt more Earth-friendly practices. It has identified nearly a dozen “fast food junkies”—marketers it claims need reform in how they source packaging materials—and said KFC and sister restaurants Taco Bell, Long John Silvers and Pizza Hut have refused to meet about the issue.

Meanwhile, Dogwood reps have started discussions with McDonalds and Quiznos about greener packaging.