McDonald's Opens 'Net-Zero' Restaurant in the UK

They are not kidding around, but are measuring both upfront and operating carbon.

Market Drayton McDonald's from the air.


McDonald's has opened what it calls the United Kingdom's first net-zero carbon restaurant. It claims: "The Market Drayton McDonald’s, which will act as a blueprint for future restaurants around the country, has been designed to be net zero emissions standard in both construction and every day operation—an industry first."

What Is Net-Zero?

Net-zero is a scenario in which human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are reduced as much as possible, with those that remain being balanced out by the removal of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

My first reaction was to make my usual complaint, as I have with Starbucks in the U.S., that you can't make a drive-thru suburban restaurant selling hamburgers sustainable and green. But let's get that out of the way upfront here, because there is a lot going on in this project that's interesting.

A drive-thru burger joint on Treehugger?
A drive-thru burger joint on Treehugger?.


The first and most important thing is the restaurant is built to the UK Green Building Council's (UKGBC) net-zero standard, which is one of the first to account for embodied carbon—the upfront carbon that is emitted in the construction of the restaurant—as well as the operating emissions. In its thorough explanation of net-zero emissions goals and definitions, McDonald's explains:

1.1 Net zero carbon – construction is defined as: “When the amount of carbon emissions associated with a building’s product and construction stages up to practical completion is zero or negative, through the use of offsets or the net export of on-site renewable energy.”
1.2 Net zero carbon – operational energy is defined as: “When the amount of carbon emissions associated with the building’s operational energy on an annual basis is zero or negative. A net zero carbon building is highly energy efficient and powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources, with any remaining carbon balance offset.''
Net zero plan

UK Green Building Council

"Our definition: We will aim to use the UKGBC Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework definition of ‘net zero carbon – construction (modules A1 – A5)’ for all freehold new build restaurants and ‘net zero carbon – operational energy (module B6)’ for all restaurants."

Upfront emissions, UK style

World Green Building Council

As can be seen from this table, A1 through A5 are classed as upfront carbon and include everything from raw material supply through to transport and construction or installation. (As an aside, that chart is one of the first to use the term "upfront carbon" which some have noted was first used on Treehugger.)

The upfront carbon emissions were reduced by replacing the usual concrete piles with a concrete slab made using pulverized fuel ash and blast-furnace slag to reduce portland cement content. The building frame itself was steel; according to McDonald's development director Gareth Hudson, speaking to Kristina Smith in Construction Management UK:

Lowering the carbon footprint of the modular steel frames for the structure of the building was more challenging. McDonald’s worked with supplier Elliott and with a specialist company called Recycled Steel. “We discovered that there is not enough recycled steel in the market to meet demands, so we opted for low-carbon European steel – which is a mix of new and recycled steel. “We are working with Recycled Steel, who are looking at ways of mitigating carbon by using different types of furnacing techniques to remove carbon from the production process.”
front of store
Pictured here are wood and plastic cladding behind plastic curbs.


The walls were insulated with sheep wool and clad with metal made from recycled IT equipment and "white goods": washers, fridges, and stoves, along with sustainably sourced poplar and plastic cladding made from recycled plastic bottles. The internal parapets on the roof, which nobody sees, are apparently made from recycled toasters and blenders. Instead of the usual aluminum commercial windows, it has used sustainably sourced timber.

A thousand concrete curbs were replaced with Durakerbs made out of plastic bottles, and the drive-thru lane is paved with recycled tires. According to McDonald's, "This material produces less carbon-dioxide and allows more water to be absorbed, reducing the amount of rainwater going down the drain."

coffee sign made from coffee beans
coffee sign made from coffee beans.


Sometimes it seems a bit silly. You are not going to save much upfront carbon making the wall signs out of coffee beans or making the art out of recycled polystyrene cups. But the superficial feel-good stuff doesn't change the fact that by measuring everything against the UKGBC standard—it all adds up to serious carbon savings.

aerial view with turbines
aerial view with turbines.


Operating carbon emissions are reduced by the use of renewable energy from almost 1,000 square feet of solar panels on the roof and two photogenic vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT) that are estimated to generate 60,000 kilowatt-hours per year; they will buy green power to make up any difference. VAWT turbines don't actually work very well in cities where they look lovely but are subject to turbulence, but this site looks wide open in the photos, so they might well be doing more than greenwashing. Again, when Method Consulting is running real carbon numbers for the UKGBC standard, all the metal in that turbine has to pay for itself. And the UKGBC likes what it sees here. Simon McWhirter, the UKGBC director of communications, policy, and places, says in the press release:

“The challenge of decarbonising the construction industry is a complex one, but McDonald’s commitment to building the first restaurant in the UK in line with UKGBC’s net zero carbon buildings framework is a critical first step. We welcome the ambition to achieve net zero emissions for all McDonald’s restaurants and offices by 2030.”
google map of site
An aerial view of the site under construction.

Google Maps

Looking at the Google Image of the site sandwiched between industrial storage and farmland, I have to reiterate that, of course, we should not be praising development in the middle of nowhere that everyone has to drive to or through. Of course, we dislike the spread of the American-style drive-thru to the U.K., where it has been booming because of the pandemic. And of course, if we care about carbon emissions, we shouldn't be eating burgers.

But I have to say, I am impressed. This is real net-zero. This is measuring both upfront and operating carbon. This is not our usual net-zero by 2050 fantasy; this is not just pretty turbines and promises. And it appears the fast food chain is just getting started. Last words to Beth Hart, McDonald’s vice president of supply chain and brand trust:

“At McDonald’s we believe that our food needs to be served in restaurants that are sustainable for the future. Market Drayton is a big step towards making that a reality, enabling us to test and put into practice what a net zero emissions building, both in build and use, really looks like. We’ve already started to roll out some of these innovations to other restaurants, but what is exciting about Market Drayton is the fact it will act as a blueprint for our future new builds.”