EarthTalk: What are the fast-food chains doing
to cut back on--or at least recycle--the huge amount of paper,
plastic and foam they use daily? Are there any laws or regulations
to force them to be good environmental citizens? -- Carol
Endres, Stroud Township, PA
there are no federal laws or regulations in the U.S. specifically
aimed at getting fast food chains to reduce, reuse or recycle
their waste. Businesses of all kinds must always obey local
laws pertaining to what must be recycled versus what can be
discarded. And a small number of cities and towns have local
laws specifically designed to force businesses to do the right
thing, but they are few and far between.
have been some strides in the fast food business with regard
to packaging materials and waste reduction, but it has all
been voluntary and usually under pressure from green groups.
McDonald’s made headlines back in 1989 when, at the
urging of environmentalists, it switched its hamburger packaging
from non-recyclable Styrofoam to recyclable paper wraps and
cardboard boxes. The company also replaced its bleached paper
carryout bags with unbleached bags and made other green-friendly
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,
carry out bags and drink holders.
smaller fast food chains have garnered accolades for their
recycling efforts. Arizona-based eegee’s, for instance,
earned an Administrator’s Award from the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency for recycling all paper, cardboard and polystyrene
across its 21-store chain. Besides the positive attention
it has generated, the company’s recycling effort also
saves it money in garbage disposal fees every month.
such efforts, though, the fast food industry is still a large
generator of waste. Some communities are responding by passing
local regulations requiring recycling where applicable. Seattle,
Washington, for example, passed an ordinance in 2005 prohibiting
businesses (all businesses, not just restaurants) from disposing
of recyclable paper or cardboard, though violators only pay
a nominal $50 fine.
policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere could take a lead 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 (U.S.).
Taipei Times, “Restaurants set the new recycling trend,”
COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
America's fast food industry is a huge generator of waste.
Some strides have been made in recycling and reducing packaging
and serving materials, but it has all been voluntary and usually
only under intense pressure from environmental groups.
What are the environmental pros and cons of switching
to plant-based “bio-fuels” to reduce our reliance
on oil? --Jim Dand, Somerville, MA
There are many
eco-benefits to replacing oil with bio-fuels like ethanol
and biodiesel. For one, since such fuels are derived from
agricultural crops, they are inherently renewable--a-nd our
own farmers typically produce them domestically, reducing
our dependence on unstable foreign sources of oil. Additionally,
ethanol and biodiesel emit less particulate pollution than
traditional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuels. They
also do not contribute to global warming, since they only
emit back to the environment the carbon dioxide (CO2) that
their source plants absorbed out of the atmosphere in the
And unlike other
forms of renewable energy (like hydrogen, solar or wind),
biofuels are easy for people and businesses to transition
to without special apparatus or a change in vehicle or home
heating infrastructure--you can just fill your existing car,
truck or home oil tank with it. Those looking to replace gasoline
with ethanol in their car, however, must have a “flex-fuel”
model that can run on either fuel. Otherwise, most regular
diesel engines can handle biodiesel as readily as regular
Despite the upsides,
however, experts point out that biofuels are far from a cure
for our addiction to petroleum. A wholesale societal shift
from gasoline to biofuels, given the number of gas-only cars
already on the road and the lack of ethanol or biodiesel pumps
at existing filling stations, would take some time.
Another major hurdle
for widespread adoption of biofuels is the challenge of growing
enough crops to meet demand, something skeptics say might
well require converting just about all of the world’s
remaining forests and open spaces over to agricultural land.
“Replacing only five percent of the nation’s diesel
consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately
60 percent of today’s soy crops to biodiesel production,”
says Matthew Brown, an energy consultant and former energy
program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“That’s bad news for tofu lovers.”
Another dark cloud
looming over biofuels is whether producing them actually requires
more energy than they can generate. After factoring in the
energy needed to grow crops and then convert them into biofuels,
Cornell University researcher David Pimental concludes that
the numbers just don’t add up. His 2005 study found
that producing ethanol from corn required 29 percent more
energy than the end product itself is capable of generating.
He found similarly troubling numbers in making biodiesel from
soybeans. “There is just no energy benefit to using
plant biomass for liquid fuel,” says Pimentel.
There is no one
quick-fix for weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and the
future will likely see a combination of sources--from wind
and ocean currents to hydrogen, solar and, yes, some use of
biofuels--powering our energy needs. The “elephant in
the living room,” however, that is often ignored when
considering energy options is the hard reality that we must
reduce our consumption, not just replace it with something
else. Indeed, conservation is probably the largest single
“alternative fuel” available to us.
Ecology Center Biofuel Factsheet, www.ecologycenter.org/factsheets/biodiesel.html;
Earth911 Energy Conservation Factsheet, www.earth911.org/master.asp?s=lib&a=Energy/energy.asp.
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