Fast Food Trash Nation? Time to Cut Down on Packaging Waste.

Every spring, my wife and I pick up garbage along the road near the house where she grew up. We aim to do this after the snow melts and before the poison ivy comes out. It's not clean or fun work, but we like doing something -- not just planning to do something -- to help our community.

The garbage varies: a pair of sneakers on the roadside; a matching couch and loveseat on the iced-over reservoir; Heineken tall boys and cans of Bud. There is always a lot; usually the garbage from a three-mile stretch of road fills a pick-up. But one thing is consistent: fast food trash. Cups and bottles, bags, wrappers, and boxes, spread over yards of countryside. Much of this is recyclable. Some is destined for landfills. Stuff that doesn't get collected might end up in a giant garbage patch in the ocean. As I pick up the mess, I often wonder if these restaurants could do more to urge customers not to litter. It turns out, according to a new NRDC report, they could be doing a whole lot more than that to cut down on packaging waste.

My colleagues, working together with the corporate responsibility group As You Sow, took a look at packaging in fast food and quick service restaurants (from McDonalds to Prêt à Manger), beverage companies, grocery chains and other food retailers. They found that most of the 47 companies they studied, many of which had established corporate sustainability programs, fail to fully account for the environmental impacts of their packaging--especially to what happens to their packaging after it's used.

Every year in the United States, the paper, aluminum, glass, plastics and other recyclable material we throw away would be worth $11.4 billion if it were recycled instead. Less than 14 percent of plastic packaging, which is the fastest-growing form of packaging, gets recycled. In addition to being a real waste of materials, single-use food and beverage packaging is a prime source of the estimated 269,000 tons of plastic pollution currently floating around in the world's oceans, harming turtles, whales, seabirds and other marine life, as possibly human health as well.

The United States has one of the lowest overall recycling rates of any developed nation. We recycle only half the packaging we use. Part of the problem is that recycling infrastructure just isn't good enough. Many communities don't have curbside recycling programs. And in the fast food and quick-serve chains NRDC studied, only Starbucks had committed to making recycling bins available for customer use system-wide, and only Prêt à Manger had both recycling and composting bins for customers at all its U.S. locations. What's the use of proudly handing your customers recyclable or compostable cups, and then not giving them a way to recycle or compost them? Or putting out a recycling bin, but failing to tell customers what to put in it? Cups only? Straws? Lids? A fully thought-out sustainability policy should look at the full lifecycle of packaging, from how it's made and used through disposal.

Another issue is that certain popular items are hard to recycle, like black plastic takeout containers. The color apparently throws off optical sorters that separate materials for recycling plants. Simply switching to white or clear plastic would make a big difference. Plastic juice pouches and drink boxes are also generally not recyclable. The 1.4 billion Capri Sun pouches thrown away every year would reach nearly halfway to the moon, laid end-to-end. NRDC joined the Make It, Take It campaign to ask companies like Kraft, which makes Capri Sun, to use recyclable, reusable, or compostable packages for beverages.

Starbucks is working with paper recyclers to find ways to recycle greasy or food-stained wrappers and boxes. Preliminary studies suggest this might not be as difficult as previously thought. Taking food wrappers out of the waste stream would really cut down on garbage; so could a simple reminder like printing "Please recycle this bag" on bags.

In Europe, food companies are responsible for the packaging they put out into the world. Yet the very same big multinational corporations that agree to pay for collection of their packaging in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, refuse to take that same responsibility in the United States. Many of these companies also fight bottle and container deposits, which have proven to be the single most successful way to boost recycling rates in the United States.

Reducing packaging waste keeps trash out of landfills, pollution out of the ocean, and even supports the economy by creating jobs in the recycling industry. California's goal of reaching a 75 percent recycling rate by 2020 could create 110,000 jobs. So it's important for restaurants, beverage companies and grocery stores to pay more attention to and take responsibility for their packaging, both how it's made and how it's disposed of. It will make a real difference for communities. And maybe it will make for fewer litterbugs, too. I'd be happy to do some other form of community service.

[This post is part of our Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.]

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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