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A Close Look at Pret A Manger’s Consumer-Side Recycling

When foodservice operators elect to make changes to their businesses, many of them choose to start small or with the least complex aspect of the project and move forward from there. Well, when it came to implementing a recycling program for its units here in the United States, Pret A Manger took the opposite approach.

For its pilot recycling program, Pret A Manger divided its waste into three streams: paper, plastic and metals and trash (items that are not recyclable).

Instead of beginning with its back-of-the-house operations, Pret A Manger is piloting a front-of-the-house recycling program in three of the chain's New York City stores. "The customer side is the most complex part of the business and that is the area that will require the most significant piloting," said Chris Gwilliam, operations project manager for Pret A Manger. "We have more control over the back of the house, so this will be a simpler program to execute, which we have planned in the first half of this year."

When looking at the front-of-the-house recycling program, the Pret A Manger team had numerous considerations including how customers will respond to the recycling bins and signage, and how asking customers to separate their waste into three separate streams will impact their flow through the store. Adding to the complexity of this part of the initiative is understanding how the waste haulers will process the recyclable materials and what level of waste purity the recycling efforts will generate.

Traditionally, customer-side recycling among foodservice operators meant separating plastic bottles and aluminum cans from their waste stream but Pret A Manger wants to establish a more comprehensive recycling program, one that includes salad and sandwich boxes, plastic fruit cups and as much consumer-side foodservice packaging as possible.

As a result, Pret A Manger has gone from having a single waste stream on the consumer side to three streams: paper, plastic, and metals and trash (items that are not recyclable).

"To get this up and running, we had to pre-screen every piece of packaging we use in our business and determine which stream it goes into," Gwilliam said.

Working in conjunction with Global Green's Coalition for Resource Recovery, Pret A Manger's pre-screening process was thorough. The chain sent certain items to Western Michigan University, where a repulpability and recyclability test was performed to see if the waste could actually be recycled by a paper mill. To help offset the costs associated with such testing Pret A Manger worked with a pair of its paper products' vendors to secure funding.

In addition, the Pret A Manger team paid a visit to their waste hauler's facility to see how the company processes the waste and to coordinate other steps associated with the pilot program. For example, as part of the monitoring and measuring of the pilot, the hauler agreed to process the waste separately to determine the volume and purity of what's collected at the participating Pret A Manger units. "The waste haulers are an integral part of any recycling program," Gwilliam said. "You really need several partners to work with you because it is a very involved and complex program."

Another key step was finding a way to replace a single waste stream trash can with a receptacle that can accommodate three streams: two recycling and one trash. Increasing the complexity of such a step was the fact that the new waste receptacles had to fit into the same space as the units they were replacing. To help with this step, Pret A Manger had a custom trash can built. "We're not experts in bin design. We make sandwiches," Gwilliam said. "Our partner was very helpful because they have experience in designing recycling stations. And one goal of the pilot is to understand how the bin works so we can build in any modifications before rolling out the program."

The final step before launching the program was educating the staff at each location. "The education of our teams is critical because this process is complicated," Gwilliam said. "It is not easy for customers to understand, which makes it a challenging program to be successful."

To get the ball rolling Pret A Manger held a 90-minute educational session with employees, who were very receptive to the new program. "We don't just focus on the bare mechanics of the program. We try to focus on the bigger impact this can have on the environment," Gwilliam added. "Basically, we try to educate them on the value of the overall program."

One of the most critical lessons staff had to learn is that the purity of the waste streams needs to meet the levels set in conjunction with the waste hauler. Simply put, this means having staff on hand to help make sure customers placed plastic, paper and trash in the proper areas of the bins. "We try to provide as clear messaging as possible but it is inevitable that there will be customer questions and confusion. So you have to have a team member nearby that can answer the questions by knowing which items go into which stream. When you have that you are more likely to be successful," Gwilliam said. "If the streams are not pure then it is not worth the time and effort the operator is putting into it."

Each pilot store also had its own "Green Champion" in the form of a staff member who works the floor and is interested in environmental efforts. This person's job is to put a face on the recycling initiative by working the dining room to answer questions and help guide customer behavior. "Our customers have been asking us to do this for some time, so they have been tremendously positive," Gwilliam said. "As to be expected, there has been some confusion about which items go into each stream, but when you have a business with a lot of repeat customers, hopefully they will get into the swing of things rather quickly.The great thing is that this project is a win for everyone, so you don't get resistance from staff. People want to do it and are willing to do it. They want to make it work."

To facilitate the waste removal, Pret A Manger and the waste hauler agreed to a three-bag system: black for trash, blue translucent for bottles and plastics and green for paper packaging. Staff separate the waste into two piles for pickup: one for trash and another for recyclables. Accordingly, the hauler sends two separate trucks.

Lessons Learned
Although the concept of recycling is a familiar one, Gwilliam and Pret A Manger learned that implementing this kind of program in a foodservice operation can be more complex and costly than it first appears. "You need expertise to help you through this. If I had gone into a silo and tried to do this myself, I could not have done this," he said. "It is also important to have buy-in from the leadership of the company because it does require a lot of resource behind it. And don't expect to crack it the first time. You need to learn from your experiences."

Based on the lessons the Pret A Manger team has learned thus far, the plan is to go to a stage two of the pilot program, which would include establishing packaging priorities in order to eliminate packaging that will not fit into the chain's recycling stream and introduce modifications to the bin design. "Recycling technology is changing fast. We have three streams now but in the future we could introduce a fourth or may need to reduce it to two streams," Gwilliam said. "So the bin we are refining now has the ability to modify messaging and streams in the future. So we can update them at a relatively low cost in the future."

When its pilot program is complete, Pret A Manager hopes to have a consumer-side recycling program in place at all of its U.S. locations by the end of the year and is looking to implementing a back-of-the-house recycling and composting program. "As a business, we are very committed to sustainability. It is a big part of our strategy and it is important for the customer," said Gwilliam. "We believe in the end goal, which is the diversion of waste from the landfill. If we can make it work over the long term we do expect to make our business more efficient by creating value from our waste."