Fast Food Recycling – America’s Other Fast Food Problem

Most Americans already know about our addiction as a nation to convenience. Fast food is one convenience that many Americans abuse. The success of movies like Supersize Me by Morgan Spurlock illustrate the issue. While the movie’s facts may be debatable, the issue remains that Americans consume more fast food per person per year than any other nation on the planet. The purpose of this article isn’t to remind you that there are over 500 calories in a Big Mac sandwich, but rather, to ask the question about what happens to all that fast food trash once you dump your tray in the bin? Fast food convenience comes at a price – not only to our waistlines but to the environment as well.

Extra Convenience = Extra Packaging

Fast Food Waste

Fast Food Waste

You’re on your way to work; it’s a Tuesday morning. You stop at a local fast food restaurant for a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. When you’re done, where do you put the wrapper and cup your meal came in? It goes in the trash bin at the restaurant (hopefully). If you purchase only one sandwich and one cup of coffee per week for one year that’s nearly 20 pounds of extra paper waste generated by you alone. Multiply that by everyone that purchases fast food every day of every year and you’re talking about TONS of waste generated simply because of convenience. Had you made that meal at home, you wouldn’t have required the container or wrapper for the sandwich nor would you need the paper cup (or plastic) for your coffee. You could have used a re-usable cup instead. Numerous studies have shown that all that extra waste ends up either in the landfill or worse, along our roadways with fast food waste being the primary contributor to urban litter in the US.


Lack of Fast Food Recycling

I’m sure you’ve seen the types of materials fast food restaurants use – paper wrappers, cardboard containers and plastic cups, paper napkins, etc. The vast majority of these materials are easily recyclable in almost every community in the country. Yet, the sad fact of the matter is that less than 35% of fast food waste is diverted from the landfill to recycling centers. It would be one thing if all of that extra waste generated by our need for convenience was recycled, but it’s not; it’s finding its way into our landfills instead, causing them to fill up more quickly and and accelerating our need to find alternative waste management methods.

What Can I Do to Encourage Fast Food Recycling?

First and foremost, avoid eating fast food when possible. Avoiding fast food entirely may not be practical or desired, so if you do eat at a fast food establishment, take your trash to go and recycle using the methods likely already provided by your local city at home. When I take my food to go I always recycle the paper and plastic in my recycle bins at home. This way I know the waste is going to the recycling center and not the local landfill.

Second, encourage your state and local governments to place recycling requirements on fast food restaurants. Many state and local governments have already passed laws forbidding the use of polystyrene (styrofoam) in fast food containers. I’m sure you remember the drink and sandwich containers of a decade ago. Have you also noticed that those styrofoam containers have disappeared? This is because of action by individuals just like you that encouraged restaurants to move to more environmentally-friendly practices. The same can be done with restaurants and their current recycling efforts (or lack thereof). You can make a difference with a simple phone call or letter!

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4 Responses to “Fast Food Recycling – America’s Other Fast Food Problem”

  1. NikkiB says:

    I see no reason why anyone should eat fast food. Ever. OK OK fine. Convenience. I know we’re all busy. But. That alone *does not* outweigh the negatives – one of which is nicely laid out here.

    Most people don’t always think about their waste – so I applaud you making this point that we usually miss! I’d add that, while recycling is better than landfill, reducing your use or reusing things you already have is HUGE. So just extend it to other areas of life. Bring a water bottle instead of buying bottled water (it’s less regulated than what comes out of your tap, anyway!) Reuse plastic bags at the grocery, and be more aware of options with less packaging.

    Thank you for making this point!

    • You make a great point, Nikki. I could do a whole other article on how much waste is produced (and usually not recycled) when it comes to using bottled water vs. using a re-usable water bottle. I think if most people were to see their waste contribution each year they may change their behavior. It’s hard to comprehend sometimes.

      Speaking of, I remember when I was in grade school my class took a trip to the local waste water management facility (ie: the sewage treatment plant). It was gross but it helped me to understand a bit more about that process. I think it would be a great idea to have classes go to landfills as a field trip to show them how much waste is actually produced. Out of sight, out of mind for way too many people = quickly filling up landfills.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Chris C says:

    Well said Nikki B and thanks for the great post Daniel. This is just another reason in a long long line to avoid fast food. Unfortunately, I think this is a problem that plagues the restaurant industry in general and not just fast food joints. Either way, there is no reason to eat fast food except in an emergency. I mean like you haven’t eaten all day and are stuck with your mom at an outlet mall kinda emergency.

    I’ve been a fast food eater my whole life and have recently given it up. My blog is brand new and I plan to use it as my outlet (inexpensive therapist!)

  3. alex says:

    Thanks for this post. I also found a video related to the things you discussed. In the video, David Steiner, Waste Management’s CEO, gives Melissa McGinnis a tour of their CORE program and facility. The first of its kind in the US, this anaerobic converter takes food waste and meticulously converts it into energy. The end result now is energy for electricity, but the long term plan is to be able to convert food waste into jet fuel!

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