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Live from AIPIA: McDonald’s's Reusable Foodservice Packaging a Lesson in RFID Integration

The integration of RFID technology in reusable packaging leads to improved inventory management, legal compliance in France, and waste reduction for a food service industry giant.

Inge Fleuren, Global RFID Product Solutions Manager Checkpoint Systems (left), and Julien Thibult, RFID Sales Director Checkpoint Systems France.
Inge Fleuren, Global RFID Product Solutions Manager Checkpoint Systems (left), and Julien Thibult, RFID Sales Director Checkpoint Systems France.

In no small part influenced by recent French regulations, McDonald’s and its tech/tablewear suppliers are making significant strides in the management of reusable foodservice packaging materials. U.S.-based Checkpoint Systems highlighted the practical application of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology in tracking and managing reusable tableware for a major fast-food chain. The company remained unnamed during the presentation on-stage for confidentiality reasons, but it’s widely known the chain is McDonald’s.

Inge Fleuren, Global RFID Product Solutions Manager Checkpoint Systems, explained the company's role in developing RFID products that have been instrumental in this project, emphasizing the global scale of their responsibility.

   Read  more from Packaging World about McDonald's recent trials and rollouts with RFID-based foodservice packaging and durable tableware. 

The integration of RFID technology into reusable packaging is a response to new legislative requirements in France, known as the anti-waste law, which mandates that fast-food restaurants with a certain size and capacity must transition from single-use to reusable tableware, and do so in as quickly as three years. This shift necessitates a robust system for tracking and managing these reusables to ensure efficient operations and compliance with the law. 

Julien Thibult, RFID Sales Director Checkpoint Systems France, outlined the urgency of the situation: "Three years to adapt in thousands of restaurants is really a short period of time,” he said, further elaborating on the challenges faced by fast food chains, which have been accustomed to single-use disposable packaging for over five decades. The transition to reusables not only represents a cultural shift but also impacts all operational processes. 

The solution to these challenges lies in the deployment of UHF RFID technology. Unlike traditional barcodes or QR codes that require line-of-sight for scanning, whether manual or automatic, UHF RFID tags can be read without direct visibility, enabling quick and efficient inventory counts even in challenging environments. Hardware manufacturer and smart packaging tech producer Zebra Technologies supplies the RFID scanning. "It facilitates quick stock counts without line of sight in difficult environments as well," the product engineering lead explained. 

The implementation of RFID technology has allowed for real-time visibility of stock levels, which is crucial for fast food chains that cannot afford to run out of reusable tableware. "They need real-time visibility of table stock," Thibult stressed, pointing out the necessity for fast and efficient inventory management. 

One of the key benefits of using RFID technology is the ability to conduct ultra-fast and efficient inventory counts. Thibult showcased a video demonstrating how over 1,500 unique reusables could be counted in less than a minute. This capability significantly streamlines the inventory process, which was previously conducted infrequently and with less precision.  Img 3055

Also, the RFID system has been designed to automatically trigger replenishment orders when stock levels fall below a certain threshold, ensuring that restaurants maintain an optimal level of reusables. "You can automatically replenish the good volume of reusables," Thibult said, highlighting the system's ability to optimize stock levels and minimize waste. 

Another critical aspect addressed by the RFID system is the prevention of reusable loss or destruction, which would undermine the sustainability goals of the anti-waste law. Checkpoint has installed fixed RFID readers in specific areas of the restaurants to detect reusables mistakenly thrown away with other waste. "We have saved more than 1 million reusables which were meant to be destroyed," Thibult reported, underscoring the system's effectiveness in minimizing waste. 

The unique identification capabilities of RFID tags also enable the tracking of each reusable foodservice p's lifecycle, including the number of times it has been washed and when it is due for replacement. This level of traceability is essential for managing the quality and longevity of the reusables. 

Looking ahead, Checkpoint is exploring additional applications for RFID technology within the foodservice industry. Thibult mentioned potential initiatives such as deposit or incentive programs for the return of reusables, enhancing loyalty programs, and improving compliance at the point of sale to ensure order accuracy. Additionally, the technology could be extended to manage fresh food waste, leveraging the existing RFID infrastructure in restaurants. 

From a product engineering perspective, efforts are underway to further refine the RFID technology for reusables. The goal is to reduce the number of layers in the RFID inlay, making it more sustainable and easier to for the package to be recycled. "We are looking into ways to reduce the number of layers... to become more sustainable," added Fleuren, indicating the ongoing commitment to enhancing the technology's environmental footprint. Img 3057

Currently, the foodservice packs use in-mold labeling (IML) of the RFID tags in otherwise monomaterial polypropylene (PP) packs. While the whole structure is recyclable--the total volume of PP compared to the minute amount RFID tag materials is sufficient for recovery with other recycled PP materials and they can be returned into other recycled PP products such as secondary packaging--the material isn’t sufficient for food contact thanks to the metalized internal IML RFID tag.  

The inlay structure is essential, though, because human (consumer) nature is to pick at on-pack stickers, thus destroying the RFID long before it has aged out of the system, thus defeating the purpose or reusability. This was an early lesson in considering human behavior. Also, secondary RFID scanners are used to scan trash and food waste (as opposed to tableware collection) since consumers are so used to throwing away single-use packaging. This extra layer of protection saves additional pieces of expensive reusable tableware before they’re unknowingly discarded.  

The integration of RFID technology into the management of reusable packaging represents a significant advancement for the food service industry. It addresses the challenges of inventory management, waste reduction, and compliance with sustainability regulations. As the industry continues to adapt to new environmental standards, the role of RFID technology in facilitating these transitions becomes increasingly vital. The McDonald's case study presented by Checkpoint serves as a testament to the practical benefits and potential future applications of this technology in the realm of reusable packaging management. PW

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