Every time you order a burrito, you probably don't think much about the plastic gloves your tortilla-roller wears. But millions of these gloves end up in the trash every year, which has a serious impact on the environment

At fast-casual dining chain Chipotle, workers are required to swap gloves hourly, plus any time they switch tasks. That piles up quickly: Each location goes through around 150,000 gloves per year, 95 percent of which end up in landfills. 

Enter Little Rock-based Revolution Bag. Founded in 2010, the company manufactures garbage bags from recycled plastic; Revolution then sells the bags to clients like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the city of Austin. Last year, Revolution quietly began a pilot program with Chipotle to collect used gloves from a handful of restaurants and melt them down to create bags. Now the pilot is expanding to 25 total restaurants on the West Coast. Its success will determine whether the program goes nationwide.

Traditional recycling facilities can't process polyethylene gloves, so they're usually thrown out and end up in landfills. For Chipotle, that comes out to a staggering 375 million gloves per year across all its locations. 

Under the pilot program, which has rolled out at eateries in Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento, employees drop their used gloves into a cardboard box. Once the box fills up, it's sealed and shipped to Revolution's plant in Salinas, California. The gloves then are cleaned, shredded, and turned into tiny pellets that are melted down to form the bags.

Dave Rives, Revolution's president, says he hopes all of Chipotle's restaurants in the western U.S.--about 500 of the chain's more than 2,000 U.S. eateries--participate in the program by the end of this year.

"If we got every glove Chipotle used for 10 years, it would probably take us about five days to clean and process them," he says. "From our side, we're ready to roll." 

Chipotle plans to perform its own studies to make sure that such an expansion makes sense. Caitlin Leibert, the company's director of sustainability, says the chain will analyze factors like the additional cardboard boxes and shipping required, to make sure the recycling efforts more than offset them. "In order [for Chipotle] to expand this," Leibert says, "it has to be viable from a business standpoint, as well as from an environmental
standpoint."

The first stage of the pilot program, which launched at stores in Portland last year, helped resolve some logistical questions, like whether the cardboard boxes were durable enough (they were) and what size they should be.

Revolution--which is a division of Delta Plastics, a Little Rock-based recycling and manufacturing company founded in 1996--collects most of the plastic it uses from the agriculture industry. In 2017, Revolution received a $3 million grant from California as part of the state's efforts to hit its recycling goals. The company began selling its garbage bags to Chipotle in 2012. Several years ago, when the dining chain's sustainability team discovered the gloves its employees wear and Revolution's bags were made from the same material, it asked the bag manufacturer if there was a way to close the loop. Rives's response: Absolutely. 

The pilot is one of several green initiatives at Chipotle that are either underway or in the planning stages. One hundred percent of its napkins and paper bags are now made from recycled materials, and all its bowls are made of compostable plant-based fiber. In its biennial sustainability report, which the company released on Tuesday, Chipotle says it has reduced its average restaurant waste by 25 percent since 2016. Following a growing trend, the company will experiment with strawless lids this year or next, by which time it also 
plans to cut the amount of plastic in its cutlery by 20 percent. 

Chipotle earned $4.9 billion in revenue last year and has nearly 2,500 locations. As such, each decision it makes can have a massive environmental impact. The company recently reduced the diameter of its straws by 1 millimeter, which resulted in six fewer tons of annual waste.

"That's one of the great things about being a big company with lots of growth," says Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol. "Little things become very impactful things." 

Revolution, which says it has turned more than one billion pounds of recycled plastics into bags to date, hopes the initiative can serve as an example to other companies.

"We're really excited about this," Rives says, "and about letting other people know this is possible."

Published on: Apr 30, 2019