Fast food has always been a hot button topic. Between the problems of growing obesity levels across the world and the other associated health risks of frequenting the drive-thru, fast food has already made a big impact on life in the 21st century. But what of the ecological impact of this several hundred billion dollar industry? How many times have you seen discarded food wrappers from your favourite fast food chain left by the roadside? What effect does this have on the environment around us and what are investors doing to resolve this?
While there are many different ways that the industry impacts the world around it, such as greenhouse gas emissions and water contamination through hormone and fertiliser usage, it’s packaging which arguably has the biggest effect on the environment. Your average fast food chain in 2016 will hand out food wrapped in paper or card, all placed neatly into a paper bag for your convenience – some still use plastic bags, though this is something which is fortunately being phased out at most chains. Paper bags and paper cups are a great way of reducing the impact that this industry has on the environment at large, but you will likely find that each paper cup comes with a plastic lining, a plastic lid and a plastic straw. While biodegradable plastics are definitely a possibility moving forwards, the increased cost of biodegradables over the likes of PPE mean that the industry has dragged its heels on adopting these technologies.
Where does this plastic go? Some of it gets recycled – a recent survey by NPR shows that only 14 per cent of Americans recycle plastic packaging, which means that plastic used by the other 86 per cent will either wind up in land fill or on the street as litter. From there, these pieces of plastic can quite easily get swept into rivers and streams, winding up eventually in the sea. This poses a direct threat to marine life, both through ingesting it and getting caught in the flotsam – something made worse by fast food chains opting for plastic bags over paper bags.
With such a massive focus on carbon footprints and going green in the modern day, there is huge onus on fast food chains to show that they are at the vanguard of sustainability in the industry. We have already seen this to a certain degree – McDonalds are constantly trying to show how they are lessening their impact on the environment. Despite not having recycling bins in their restaurants, they insist that they use renewable materials to make approximately 89 per cent of their packaging, recycling oil and kitchen products as much as possible. On top of this, they claim to be committed to running their entire UK fleet on biodiesel – another important way that they can reduce their ecological impact.
This is just one chain which is taking steps to improve their ecological practices. Starbucks, for example, uses 10 per cent recycled material in its paper cups – the most significant item in their packaging. While this is a step in the right direction, 10 per cent is still fairly low figure. This is offset slightly by the fact that they offer a discount to people bringing their own cups, but there is still room for improvement here.
Pret A Manger is a fantastic example showing how the investors have taken steps to reduce the ecological impact of their chain. At time of writing, Pret is the only chain in the UK offering recycling and composting for its customers. While there is a point to be made in that people often take their packaging with them, which is why many chains don’t offer this, the fact that Pret do so and manage to turn a profit is worth noting.
While we may still be a few years away from fully biodegradable fast food packaging, the fact that the industry is taking steps to reduce their ecological impact is a good start. Not only is this something which sits well with customers, helping drive customer loyalty and thus profits, it’s something which sits well with the environment at large.