Donella Meadows Archives

Bad and Good Environmental Marks for McDonald’s

By Donella Meadows

–November 9, 1989–

McDonald’s, like all fast-food purveyors, is one of the great garbage producers of the world. McDonald’s is also working as hard at reducing its contribution to the garbage problem as any company I know. It’s coming up with all sorts of bright ideas. Some of them are really bright. Some are smokescreens and diversions.

There’s a handy rule by which to tell the difference. It goes: REDUCE, RE-USE, RECYCLE, DISPOSE in that order. It’s better to recycle trash than to throw it away, better to re-use a bottle or bag directly than to recycle it, and best of all to reduce garbage by not generating it in the first place.

By that rule McDonald’s scheme to build on-site incinerators — being tested now at some Midwest locations — gets bad marks, though it has some good points. Trash burned to ash makes less weight and volume to haul to a landfill. It’s a help to city budgets and to McDonald’s own hauling costs. The only problem, from McDonald’s point of view, is that incinerators generate opposition from neighbors, though the company is doing a careful job of monitoring both stack gases and ash for harmful residues.

From an environmental point of view the problem is that incineration is still DISPOSAL. It eases the landfill a bit, but it does nothing to reduce the flow of materials from forest, paper mill, mine, oil well, and chemical plant, generating pollution every step of the way.

A better idea is McDonald’s new plastics recycling program. RECYCLING burger boxes and hot-drink cups is preferable to DISPOSING of them. But in this case the recycling is not real and not destined to last. The fastfoodware will not be cycled back to fastfoodware (which would reduce demand for new materials all along the line). It will be made into yo-yos and flowerpots, the market for which will be glutted very soon, given McDonald’s turnout of 8500 polystyrene-packaged hamburgers every MINUTE. Worse, the recycling program is likely (and is intended) to derail the laws popping up everywhere that ban the use of plastic fast food containers. Banning is a crude, intrusive, anti-market, but effective solution. It is REDUCTION — at the top of the preference list, much preferable to halfhearted recycling.

There are some good waste REDUCTION programs going on under the Golden Arches, for which McDonald’s is not getting the credit it is due. The company has come up with a dozen ways to cut its materials use behind the scenes. These advances have not been publicized. I wouldn’t have known about them, if a restaurant manager had not shared with me a recent issue of Restaurant Business magazine. For instance:

The company used to ship orange juice to its restaurants in ready-to-serve containers. Now it ships frozen concentrate, which reduces orange juice packaging by 75 percent — four million pounds less garbage a year.

French fries used to come 36 pounds to the case. Now 39 pounds are packed in the same case, reducing the need for cases by two million pounds per year.

Soft drinks were shipped as syrup in cardboard containers. The local restaurants added the water and the fizz. Now the syrup is delivered by trucks that pump it directly into receiving tanks at the restaurants. No packaging is needed at all. Savings: 68 million pounds of carboard per year.

McDonald’s has been whittling away at the thickness of its polystyrene burger containers, straws, and cold drink lids, reducing them on average by 12 percent. That adds up to one million pounds less plastic in 1988.

The company is also promoting recycling in the way most needed — not by generating more recycled stuff, but by becoming a market for it. It uses recycled paper in its napkins and paper bags and recycled cardboard in its Happy Meals boxes.

These moves get an environmental AAA rating. They also point out what a difference a huge company can make, when it gets innovative about environmental responsibility.

McDonald’s gets some credit, but so do the customers who put on the pressure that generated these changes. That means you and me — and our work is not done. If we want to continue the progress up the scale from disposal to reduction, here are some things we can do.

Congratulate McDonald’s for its behind-the-scenes garbage reduction. Participate in its recycling program, but keep pushing for plastics bans — those bans have done more than anything else to get the attention of industry. They should be implemented until industry comes up with a credible scheme of waste reduction to equal them.

Check out Burger King, where they pack burgers in cardboard (cardboard is by no means environmentally pure, but it’s better than oil-derived, hazardous-waste-generating polystyrene). Take along your own coffee cup — Burger King still uses polystyrene there. Better, go to a restaurant where they serve burgers unpackaged and on real, rewashable plates. Best of all, cook your burger at home — and buy the beef from a local producer who did not ravage a rainforest or pump a feedlot cow full of chemicals to produce it.

Every step toward environmental responsibility is welcome and should be celebrated. And we need to keep our eyes not only on how far we have come, but how far we have to go.

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989


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