Taco Bell will recycle those hot sauce packets for you

Taco Bell hot sauce packets against blue background [image provided by Taco Bell]
Image: Taco Bell

It’s well known that Taco Bell’s hot sauces have developed a cult-like following, and this fandom has demonstrated its power to fuel black markets, save lives, stall drive-thru operations, and inspire culinary creativity. The biggest problem with these condiments isn’t that they make your eyes water, it’s that their single-serve wrappers create tons of litter that goes straight to the landfill. Today, Taco Bell announced via press release that it has partnered with TerraCycle, a waste management company, to work on finding ways to recycle the used sauce packets instead.

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I would’ve thought that the solution lay in switching the condiment packets to some sort of compostable material, but that doesn’t sound quite like what’s happening here: per the press release, “TerraCycle is renowned for collecting traditionally non-recyclable materials, cleaning them, then melting and remolding them into hard plastic that can be used to make new recycled products. This means that one day, used sauce packets could have an exciting future as something totally new.”

The press release notes that 8.2 billion T-Bell sauce packets (!!!!) are used in the U.S. each year. That figure exceeds the number of people on Earth, much less the number of Taco Bell customers in a country of 329 million people. Even if you presume that half the United States population is responsible for that level of sauce packet consumption, that’s about 50 packets per person annually. This stuff is even more beloved than we knew.

Further details about the program are forthcoming, but the press release stresses that “customer participation will be easy and will incorporate free shipping.” Sounds like it’ll involve mailing packets to the company to be recycled? I’m trying very hard to tamp down my skepticism that even a single late-night Taco Bell customer will remember to do this in the harsh light of day (myself very much included), because I’m curious to see what kind of waste reduction results from such a program.

The recycling initiative is part of Taco Bell’s stated goal of “making all consumer-facing packaging recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2025 in restaurants across the globe.”

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

DISCUSSION

Dr Emilio Lizardo

I’m going to have to question the math on 8.2B packets a year.

There are about 6500 Taco Bells in the US. That means each uses about 1.25 million packets/year, which comes to about 3400/day, assuming they are open every day. It appears food service companies sell packets like this in boxes of 200/box, which means 17 boxes/day, and that’s just hot sauce packets. If that is accurate, then recycling the cardboard becomes as big an issue as the packets themselves and the logistics of storing that on location become daunting.

On the other hand, it does sort of fit with their claim of 40M customers/week, which is about 2B/year, meaning each customer grabs about 4 packets/visit.  That’s probably not out of line with ketchup consumption at a fast food burger place.