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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Has the McDonald’s restaurant chain made significant improvements in recent years with regard to the environment?
—Max Andria, Laval University, Quebec

Though McDonald's will never please vegetarians, most of whom consider the meat industry a serious affront to the environment, the restaurant chain has made some significant strides in reducing waste, saving energy and protecting forests by developing a zero deforestation plan for all the products it sources.

Photo © harry_nl, courtesy Flickr

Long a poster child of environmental ills and health concerns, McDonald’s has worked steadily over the last two decades to clean up its act. The company will never win over vegetarians, who eschew meat for health, animal welfare and even world hunger concerns (we’d feed more people by using the land used to grow animal feed to grow food for people instead), but it has otherwise made some significant strides.

The company first came under fire from greens in the 1980s for sourcing beef for its hamburgers from ranches on newly cleared, former rainforest tracts throughout the Amazon basin. In response, the company committed in 1989 to refuse beef sourced from recently deforested rainforest areas.

Environmentalists were also on the company’s case about the waste it generates. So in 1990 McDonald’s partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and began phasing out its polystyrene “clamshell” food containers and increasing the recycled content of the other food containers and boxes it uses. EDF and the fast food giant developed a waste reduction plan that eliminated 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled a million tons of corrugated boxes and reduced waste by 30 percent in the decade that followed.

More recently, Greenpeace exposed the fact that expanded soy farming in Brazil—which feeds chickens used by McDonald’s and other large food companies—had become a threat to the Amazon rainforest. In response, McDonald’s partnered with Greenpeace to develop a zero deforestation plan for all its products.

Likewise, McDonald’s beef purchasing executives have gotten in on things: In November 2010 the company was lead sponsor of the World Wildlife Fund’s first Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, an international meeting of stakeholders in the global beef system convened to discuss how to approach sustainable beef production in socially, environmentally and economically viable ways.

Another green highlight for McDonald’s is its commitment to matching 30 percent of the electricity used at its company-owned stores with renewable energy credits from American wind power providers. And several Japanese McDonald’s are participating in an energy-saving campaign employing 13 different green technologies with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent overall.

While McDonald’s is moving in the right direction, it is still widely criticized for the waste it generates and its contribution to health woes such as obesity. For its part, the company has limited control over the 80 percent of its stores that are run by independent franchisees, so change under the golden arches is slow.

This past spring, McD’s released its Global Best of Green report highlighting advances made in energy efficiency, sustainable packaging, anti-littering and greening the workplace at hundreds of its restaurants around the world, underscoring it’s commitment to sustainability moving forward. The company hopes the new report will serve as a catalyst for franchisees to make similar improvements in their businesses.

CONTACTS: EDF; Greenpeace; McDonald’s Best Practices.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve read conflicting reports about the dangers of non-stick cookware. I have a set of older non-stick pans and am not sure if I need to replace them. Are they harmful to use, particularly if they have a few scratches?
—Miriam Jones, Montgomery, AL

When Teflon is exposed to high heat it can release its constituent chemical, PFOA, as a gas. There are no known cases of direct health problems for consumers, but workers producing Teflon are at increased risk for certain cancers, prompting the U.S. government to call for a complete phase-out of Teflon and related products by 2015.

Photo © Hemera Collection

It may be time to upgrade your pans, given that the U.S. government has called for a complete phase-out of polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE, otherwise known as Teflon) and related products by 2015, due to health concerns. When Teflon is exposed to high heat it can degrade, which causes it to release its constituent chemical, PFOA, as a gas. This phenomenon can kill pet birds, and can’t be good for humans either.

While there are no known cases of airborne PFOA causing direct health problems for consumers, workers in plants where Teflon has been produced are at increased risk for cancers of the pancreas and the male reproductive tract. “Numerous studies have shown that PFOA alters reproductive hormones in the male, causing increased levels of estrogen and abnormal testosterone regulation and that PFOA or chemicals that break down into PFOA damage the thyroid gland,” reports Melissa Breyer of the website Care2.

Breyer adds that four organs or tissues in the immune system and at least nine types of cells that regulate immune function are targets of PFOA, and that scientists have been unable to find a level of PFOA that doesn’t damage the immune system: “Doses given to effected lab animals were minimal—and less, relatively, than levels found in children.” The fact that PFOA exposure led to testicular, pancreatic, mammary and liver tumors in rats doesn’t bode well for what the chemical may do to humans.

Of course, the risk of exposure is much lower for a person frying an egg at home than for a factory worker manufacturing PTFE for DuPont. In 2007, Consumer Reports Magazine tested PTFE-based non-stick pans from several manufacturers and found harmful airborne emissions of PFOA to be minimal. “The highest level was about 100 times lower than levels that animal studies suggest are of concern for ongoing exposure to PFOA,” reported the magazine. “With the aged pans, emissions were barely measurable.”

Some manufacturers are working on safer non-stick cookware using ceramic or silicone coatings free of PTFE or PFOA. But a 2009 survey of eight such alternatives by Cook’s Illustrated magazine did not identify any of the new choices out there high marks. “Not a single one of these ‘green’ pans was without flaws,” said the magazine. “In some, delicate eggs burned, thin fish fillets stuck, and steak charred on the outside while remaining raw within. Others stained or transferred heat inconsistently.” Some pans accumulated the browned bits known as fond when steak was seared, indicating unwanted sticking power.

Many foodies have resigned themselves to the likelihood that the idea of a non-stick pan might in and of itself be too good to be true. As such, cast iron, aluminum, copper and stainless steel each rate high for even heat distribution and for holding up well at high temperatures and frequent use. Used properly—such as by employing a little oil or butter to inhibit food from sticking—such pans can last decades.

CONTACTS: Care2; Consumer Reports’ Kitchen Cookware; Cook’s Illustrated “Green Skillets”.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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