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Why aren’t fast food restaurants recycling?

Go to any fast food restuarant and you will likely be left with almost as much waste in the form of packaging as you had food to eat. Much of that waste is recyclable…plastic drink bottles and cups, cardboard, plastic wrappers, etc. So why don’t these resturants have recycling options available in their stores?

The ‘greening’ of fast food

Corporations such as Starbucks and McDonalds have touted their efforts to make their packaging more recyclable. McDonalds has moved away from paper wrappers which can’t be recycled when covered in food waste, and has reduced the amount of paper in its napkins by 21%. Starbucks has committed to developing a fully recyclable coffee cup and to serving beverages exclusively in recyclable or reuseable mugs by 2015.

These efforts have been applauded by the environmental group The Dogwood Alliance, which is leading the way in the effort to make fast food packaging more environmentally friendly. That applause is deserved. However, it is only the first step. If these restaurants don’t place recycling receptacles in their restaurants all that effort will be for naught. The recyclable packaging will still end up in the trash. Currently only 35% of all the recyclable packaging at fast food restaurants is diverted away from landfills to recylcling facilities.

How do we get fast food restaurants to start recycling?

Perhaps the industry just hasn’t noticed the growing trend towards recycling in this country. But that’s a bit far fetched. More likely fast food corporations haven’t seen a financial benefit in recycling.

Our power as consumers is to speak to corporations through our wallets. Fast food restaurants  probably will not start recycling until customers demand that they do so. We do that by not buying our food at restaurants that have unrecyclable packaging, or that don’t provide a means of recycling.

Not patronizing McDonalds or Taco Bell based on your environmental principles is easier said than done, particularly if you have a toddler in the car clamoring for a Happy Meal. So to ease your conscience, take your trash with you and recycle it at home. Tell the manager why you’re taking the trash away. The manager may not have any control over whether the restaurant recycles or not, but managers pass customer comments up to franchise owners when the same comment keeps popping up.

Beyond your personal dining habits, we should all be lobbying our elected officials to require recycling in fast food establishments. You can find your local representatives by visiting your state, county or municipality official government web site. To locate your US Senator, visit the official US Senate web site at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm. To find your US Representatives, visit the US House web site at http://www.house.gov/. Calling is good, and so are e-mails, but the most effective means of communication is the old-fashioned letter mailed by US post.

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  1. Sara Styles
    Posted August 2, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Some fast food restaurants tell you to “go green” by recycling your beverage containers, but exclude obvious stuff like plastic cups and paper bags. I’m often stuck lugging my waste home so I can put it in my recycling and organics bin. I found a place in my region (Metro Vancouver) that recycles Styrofoam and foil-lined bags, such as candy wrappers or chip bags.

  2. Megan
    Posted May 14, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for posting this. I have been looking everywhere trying to find if anyone else has noticed this issue. I don’t understand why this obvious step has not been taken, and I was blown off by a McDonald’s rep when I mentioned this same thing.

  3. Abub
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Shouldn’t recycling be a personal choice and not an oppressive enforcement of the government?

    • Posted March 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps, but this post was about requiring restaurants to to offer it, not about forcing their patrons to use it. Since we’ve broached the topic, however, laws that are designed to promote and protect the public health, safety and welfare are most assuredly appropriate. If they weren’t we would do away with laws that prohibit toxic chemical dumping, limits on CO2 emissions from vehicles and industrial plants, laws on proper disposal of nuclear waste, OSHA, medical professional licensing, car seats, etc., etc. While recycling may not seem to fit this group because the choice to throw your milk jug in the trash doesn’t cause direct and immediate harm to anyone, I am of the opinion that it is just as critical to the public health and well-being. The environment cannot continue to support the volume of waste we as humans produce, particularly in the US. And billions of us have to live here on this planet. So the short answer to your question is no, I don’t think it should be left to choice. To many of us won’t make the right choice becase we don’t want to be inconvenienced. And we know we can’t just trust corporations to do the right thing unless it positively benefits their bottom line. Let’s attack repressive government laws like being forced to wear seat belts or motorcycle helmets. At least when the wrong choice is made there billions of your neighbors don’t have to pay the price for generations to come.


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  1. […] reported in our February post, Why aren’t fast food restaurants recycling?, Starbucks has committed to developing a fully recyclable coffee cup and to serving beverages […]

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