Recycling Fast Food Waste

Some fast food chains cut waste voluntarily, but tougher regulation is needed

A street cleaning worker dumps trash, including branded fast food takeout cups, into a pickup truck

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Along with burgers, tacos, and fries, fast-food restaurants serve up mountains of paper, plastic, and Styrofoam waste every day. As fast-food chains expand into the global market, their branded trash proliferates around the planet. Are these chains doing anything to cut back or recycle? Is self-regulation enough, or do we need stronger laws on the books to govern daily fast-food waste?

Vague Policies on Waste Reduction

Both McDonald’s and PepsiCo (owner of KFC and Taco Bell) have crafted internal policies to address environmental concerns. PepsiCo states that it encourages “conservation of natural resources, recycling, source reduction, and pollution control to ensure cleaner air and water and to reduce landfill wastes,” but does not elaborate on specific actions it takes.

McDonald’s makes similar general statements and claims to be “actively pursuing the conversion of used cooking oil into biofuels for transportation vehicles, heating, and other purposes,” and pursuing various in-store paper, cardboard, delivery container, and pallet recycling programs in Australia, Sweden, Japan, and Britain. In Canada, the company claims to be the “largest user of recycled paper in our industry” for trays, boxes, takeout bags and drink holders. In 1989, at the urging of environmentalists, they switched hamburger packaging from non-recyclable Styrofoam to recyclable paper wraps and cardboard boxes. They also replaced bleached paper carryout bags with unbleached bags, and made other green-friendly packaging advances.

Reducing Waste to Save Money

Some smaller fast-food chains have garnered accolades for their recycling efforts. In Arizona, for instance, Eegee’s earned an Administrator’s Award from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling all paper, cardboard, and polystyrene across its 21 stores. Besides the positive attention it has generated, the company’s recycling effort also saves money in garbage disposal fees every month.

Steps in the right direction include greener packaging materials and waste reduction, but it has all been voluntary, and usually under pressure from private citizens. And despite such efforts, headlines, and awards, the fast-food industry remains a huge generator of wasted materials, not to mention food waste.

Communities Take a Hard Line

Currently, there are no federal regulations in the U.S. specifically enforcing sustainable practices in the fast-food industry. While all businesses must always obey local laws about trash and recycling, very few cities or towns force them to be good environmental citizens. Some communities are responding by passing local regulations requiring recycling where applicable. For example, Seattle passed an ordinance in 2005 prohibiting any businesses from disposing of recyclable paper or cardboard, Still, violators only pay a paltry $50 fine.

In 2006, amid protests from the local business community, Oakland, California enacted a fee on fast-food places, convenience stores, and gas stations meant to offset the costs of litter and trash clean up. The aim of the ordinance, the first of its kind in the nation, was discouraging those businesses from using disposable products in the first place. Not only would this decrease the presence of candy wrappers, food containers, and paper napkins littering the streets and engorging landfills, but the tax would raise funds for the city.

Policymakers could take notes from Taiwan, which since 2004 has required its 600 fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC, to maintain facilities for proper disposal of recyclables by customers. Diners are obliged to deposit their garbage in four separate containers for leftover food, recyclable paper, regular waste, and liquids. “Customers only have to spend under a minute to finish the trash-classification assignment,” said environmental protection administrator Hau Lung-bin in announcing the program. Restaurants that don’t comply face fines of up to $8,700.