Fast Food's Green Trend: Making Big Macs and Lattes More Earth-Friendly

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Starbucks styrofoam cup by MyNameMattersNot, Flickr.com
MyNameMattersNot, Flickr.com
When you think of green companies, fast food chains don't exactly top the list. Fast food, after all, takes ingredients grown in monocultures around the world, transports them in gas-guzzling trucks and ships, then prepares them in air-conditioned kitchens before swaddling them in piles of plastic and paper that will eventually find their way into landfills. Overall, not an Earth-friendly process.

But what if fast food companies could find ways to chip away at those problem areas?

Some, like Chipotle, have started using solar cells and hyper-efficient plumbing to cut down on their carbon footprints. Others have installed recycling bins and segregated trash, to ensure that compostable materials and recyclables get disposed of properly.

But perhaps most impressively, some fast food chains are taking aim at their packaging. To anybody whose memory stretches back to the 1980s, a company like McDonald's might feel like the least-green business on the planet. After all, it spent decades packing its billions and billions of burgers into petroleum-based Styrofoam containers.

For that matter, fast food coffee can be similarly un-green. Between Styrofoam cups, plastic lids and cardboard sleeves, your basic latte is eight ounces of rainforest-destroying caffeine surrounded by another few ounces of Earth-killing waste products.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Starbucks and McDonald's have emerged as leaders in the green fast food movement. For the past few years, the two companies have been working on improving their sourcing, cutting down on their packaging, and lobbying the FDA to increase the amount of recycled fibers that are allowed in fast food packaging.

Recently, Starbucks took the trend a step further with its reuseable cups. Sold for $1 apiece, the cups last for about a month, cut down on the company's paper waste, and offer customers a low-cost way to improve their own carbon footprints. Not surprisingly, they're also profitable: By reducing waste, Starbucks trims its trash hauling costs. Beyond that, it also drives sales -- customers save 10 cents on their refills if they use the cups, a factor that seems likely to lure them in more often.
Starbucks isn't the only chain hopping on the reusable trend. Many companies offer pricey reusable mugs, but a growing number are bringing in inexpensive, semi-disposable, reusable vessels. For example, Just Salad, a New York-based chain, offers reusable salad bowls. When customers bring them back in, they get free toppings on their salads.

The key to these sorts of initiatives is that they don't just benefit the environment: They also benefit the companies that employ them. After all, while Just Salad's bowls ensure that less plastic makes its way into landfills, they also give customers an added incentive to walk back through its doors at lunchtime. As an increasing number of restaurants discover the profit potential in going green, it will only become easier for consumers to cut down on their own waste.

It is, however, possible to go to far. Bob's, a Brazilian fast food company, is using the ultimate recyclable packaging: their burgers come wrapped in edible, rice-based paper. Then again, if the point of packaging is to ensure that your precious food doesn't come into contact with the outside world, it's worth asking if edible wrappers defeat the entire purpose of packaging.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.


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harrymorgan124

Better than nothing but they are still adding vast amounts of carbon to the atmosphere by shipping all this food from foreign countries. Maybe next they can stop air conditioning the sweat shops kitchens their employees have to work in that would save a few drops of carbon.

Over all these places are just under paid slop shops attracting our youth to their very unhealthy food offerings.

April 23 2013 at 5:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
marjorum

When are they going to make them people friendly?

April 23 2013 at 4:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Marie Brown

Insane.

April 23 2013 at 4:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ndiscussions

My thoughts about restaurants and coffee shops using containers brought in from the outside is what sterilization or washing processes are put in place to keep people from being exposed to sickness and disease? A person from the outside who has the flu, a cold sore, hepatitis or E-coli on their dishes because they do not wash their hands after taking a dump. These dishes are then taken behind the counter, not washed or sanitized or mishandled by the employee and now the equipment and food is now contaminated with all kinds of germs and filth and you take home more than your food or beverage. Something to think about during the flu season.

April 23 2013 at 4:01 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
chazieux

Marketing, pure marketing !
Maybe McDo will one day hear of the ultimate in reuaable equipment.... china plates that can be washed !!!! Now how about that for an idea

April 23 2013 at 3:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to chazieux's comment
harrymorgan124

I don't know about the glass plate thing but slop shops can stop using oil based products in their packaging. Cardboard and paper are renewable resources and so much more earth friendly. McDonald's in America and other American based companies could also buy in America instead of going foreign I am sure the amount of food they buy would give them great wholesale prices.

April 23 2013 at 6:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
guyplh0919

Okay might want a retraction re-write on that 10% off on beverages discount at Starbucks. Starbucks has a ten cents off per cup on ANY personal cup, including the one the one you mentioned they sell for a buck. Ten purchases pays for the cup.

April 23 2013 at 12:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
houstonborn

Thank you for the article.
Another great way to eliminate waste is for individuals to not eat out at fast food chains. This stops the waste as it is not used and it is healthier for the individual.

April 23 2013 at 12:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
innovategolf

20 years ago when I got a Big Mac, it was nice and hot in a Styro Foam container. Now it is cold in a crappy "earth friendly" worthless paper wrapper. When I got a cup of coffee in the good 'ol days- in the same evil Styro Foam cup, I could actually hold it without burning my fingers- and as welcome bonus, it would actually STAY HOT for more than 10 minutes. I am so f***ing sick of this BS and these companies making my experience worse, kowtowing to a bunch of earth worshippers. What a Croc (right Ray?)

April 22 2013 at 11:34 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to innovategolf's comment
Greg

All Star Bucks products has feces in it.

April 22 2013 at 11:33 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Steve Schiffman

Greet news for the stockholders trying to earn greater profits and saving on expenses (costs). How how about passing on those savings to the consumers in LOWER prices!

April 22 2013 at 11:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Steve Schiffman's comment
croshatch

The article stated that those who brought back the reusable cups and bowls received a discount. Or, did you not actually read the article?

April 23 2013 at 12:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply