McDonald's is often criticised for environmental impact, waste and sustainability issues, but they might not be as bad as you think.
I hear a lot of complaints about the packaging, single-use plastics and trash aspect of McDonald's (and yes, I totally agree it should be better managed), but how often do people look into what really happens behind the scenes. Have you ever wondered how they might look in comparison to your local burger joint?
Let's face it, Fast food in general is pretty bad for the environment, mainly because the major selling point and the reason it exists, is that it's fast and convenient. This results in lots of packaging, including single-use items literally designed to be thrown away to make life easier, or at least seem to be that way short-term. We humans do tend to love convenience items, and trying to live more sustainably can be seriously challenging, particularly in terms of time and effort required.
What is Sustainability Anyway?
The concept of sustainability is centered around the idea of meeting current needs without compromising future needs. These days most people refer to this as the 3P's, People, Planet, and Profit.
All three are required to be truly sustainable and it isn't limited to just being concerned with waste and landfill, but it's easy to get stuck in this mindset.
Just think of and how many people think it is fabulous they can recycle their fast fashion clothes at the store H&M .There are an awful lot of things happening behind the scenes though, and rather than reducing consumption, the focus is on dealing with the end result....and it can't just be me that thinks there is a bit of a hidden agenda to encourage you to dispose of clothes without guilt so you can buy some more?
I've been relatively unfashionable all my life, but food is my thing. I'm pretty much always eating it, cooking it, shopping for it, looking at it or thinking about it....and that leads me to thinking in much more detail about where it comes from, what had to happen for me to be able to eat it, and what are the true impacts.
So, back to McDonald's, fast food, and some of the reasons they are both bad and good on the sustainability front.
Trash vs Recycling vs Composting
Remember in the 80's and 90's how car parks and local areas around Australia were always littered with McDonald's and Hungry Jack's packaging? It was a problem, and there was a big rush to install more rubbish bins and assign staff members to do periodic clean-ups to pick up all the litter on the grounds and neighbouring areas. They now call it Litter Patrol and they also put up signs and added it on packaging to remind people not to litter (I didn't know people who litter actually read signs and obey them).
These efforts made many people happier, and quite possibly avoided some costly fines, but, it didn't really solve the bigger issue. People no longer had to see all the litter (or as much of it) because now the bins are strategically placed to contain the rubbish, but it still exists and probably more of it today than ever before.
Image source: McDonalds.au
Here's a fun fact that: most of McDonalds food is actually consumed away from the store - so there is hope that people are placing it in their kerbside recycling!
What would be really fantastic to see is segregated waste bins for food, recycling and landfill.
So, why wont they just do this already!
Do they think their customers are too stupid to be able to separate their rubbish?
Is it just too hard to install a bin system?
Maccas promise us they are working towards reducing landfill, and yes, I see their packaging is improving, but what are they doing with the rubbish bins in store?
In 2012, Macca's said they were trialing a back of house recycling system in 25 restaurants but had issues with contamination, so are doing further ''work'' on it. This is the hidden stuff we don't see and don't really hear much about either, unless we go looking for it. I have heard of numerous people contacting McDonald's and complaining about the lack of recycling AND issues with packaging, so I truly hope they are listening and working on more solutions. I've also heard rumours that composting is going to be the best avenue in dealing with landfill due to the amount of food contaminating the recyclables (now this makes a lot of sense!).
Commercial composting can easily handle all types of food along with napkins, cardboard, and more. The reason this is tricky to implement is that the packaging is often a mix of plastics and paper.
Customers would need to put food, serviettes, burger and fries boxes, paper bags, tray covers etc. into a composting bin.
Then plastic cups, lids and maybe spoons into a recycle bin, followed by separating trash like coffee and milkshake cups, straws, single serve sauce tubs.
They might also have a soft plastics collection bin for their sliced apple bags and toy bags. McDonald's serve so many Happy Meals that they are actually the worlds largest toy producer!! and I have no idea why they have to be put in a plastic bag, sometimes two bags.
The ability to separate all the different materials in store and then to prevent food contamination and waste being placed in the wrong receptacle is kinda complex and perhaps just an attempt at dealing with the end problem, not all the steps that lead to the issue. This level of waste separation is hard to achieve in a home, let alone a public ''restaurant. So, it's not because consumers are too stupid to recycle, its that the mix of different packaging along with food creates a bit of a recycling nightmare.
I do love that there is less plastic and more cardboard at Macca's these days and we haven't had to deal with polystyrene in Australia for years, but its still a LOT of rubbish. I somehow always feel they should make a bigger effort and maybe that's because they make such a lot of money and spend so much on marketing that I wish I didn't have to see.
Just as an example of the sheer size of McDonald's, in Australia, when they redesigned the McFlurry Cup to reduce the plastic and the result was a 47 tonne drop in plastic over a year!
That is pretty epic in terms of preventing landfill. Lots of other packaging has had a redesign to be more sustainable and this seems to be an ongoing area of progress that we can easily see. I also have to admit, I see no recycling segregation at my local fast food shops either and only recently have spotted some public recycling bins in our area, but they are few and far between and it just hasn't become the norm yet. So, we may love to hate certain things about Macca's, but we may have to cut them a bit of slack now and again and compare them to other fast food options (which may or may not still involve polystyrene).
Of course we can opt not to spend our hard earned money there too if we want. And, I have to admit, despite trying to live more sustainably, we still go there occasionally, here's how i make our visit to McDonald's more Zero Waste.
It's Not All Bad, and It's Not All About Packaging
You might be surprised to discover that McDonald's have implemented a lot of programs aimed at dealing with sustainability and the environmental impact of their food sourcing.
I have some doubts about the effectiveness of some of them, and can't help but be disappointed by the fact they don't release sustainability reports very often .....but the point is, they are working towards something. Their reasons could be because consumers are getting a bit more educated and pickier at to where they spend their money, or it could be because of the sheer size they attract a lot of media attention and therefore need to protect their image and make sure they do the ''right thing''.
I haven't actually heard any one I know complain about Hungry Jack's packaging......and it seems like HJ's are making some efforts on the sustainability front. They are apparently in the process of changing their burger boxes to wraps to save some trees (wonder if they are recyclable wraps or plastic coated). Part of their action plan includes labels about not littering too (*sigh*). I would love to see a more detailed, meaningful plan from them.
Contrary to what many people believe, operating sustainably can actually be really beneficial to profits. It's a bit like going zero waste and then realising that you have saved a fortune by making some simple swaps. Admittedly, there are a lot of really costly actions and ideas out there that are not realistic for many organisations to implement, but, a smart company will align these with their strategy. after all, if a business isn't making money, how can it possibly continue to operate?
A few years ago, McDonald's created a greener restaurant by focusing on energy and water use as well as idling time of cars waiting at the drive-thru. This may have been a little more expensive to build, but the long term benefits of reduced resource usage and of course lower operating costs are going to make efforts such as this worthwhile especially as more and more are open 24/7.
In comparison to your corner shop takeaway, who probably don't have a strategy and also don't have the resources to heavily invest in such big costly activities, Maccas might not being doing so badly.....but local shops also aren't serving 1.7 million Australian customers a day. I don't doubt that there are some fast food joints doing back of store recycling and I know some of my local cafes do an amazing job at segregating waste that is pretty impressive.
The nature and characteristics of the fast food industry makes it really difficult for them to be truly sustainable, however it is becoming an important competitive factor. Fast Food providers face many challenges including how to sustainably source farmed products such as beef, along with warehouse operations, complex supply chains and transportation. Working conditions, pay and any impact on the communities in which they operate must also be considered and managed for true sustainability. (Remember the 3P's - People, Planet & Profit).
The larger the company, the more complex it is to manage, McDonald's may actually be achieving a much higher level of sustainable practices than most of the other players in the fast food industry.
Sourcing & Supply of Food at McDonald's
Did you know that the trucks that deliver food from the warehouse to McDonald's stores collect the cooking oil on their trip back?
They then convert used cooking oil into biofuel for the delivery trucks. I actually think that is pretty cool and it's something that is difficult for small local fast food shops to implement quite this well.
McDonald’s have 36,000+ restaurants worldwide in over 100 countries and they mostly use a very small selection of suppliers that they rely on for a huge quantity of items.
Selecting, managing and monitoring the entire supply chain is pretty critical to making a business sustainable and these days mismanagement can be fatal as business leaders are being held more and more accountable for what their organisations do, or permit to happen, behind the scenes, no matter how far down the supply chain they are.
McDonald’s process 27.8 million kilograms of beef just in Australia each year. so to be sustainable they have to look at how products are produced at the farm level, prepared, processed, transported, and finally sold to customers, including the portion that is sent to the USA to meet their very high demand for beef.
Cattle grazing, through to processing the beef so that we can eat it has pretty significant environmental impacts in regards to water, energy consumption, emissions, and impacts on land and forestry. Just a few of the reasons there's a need for examining the life-cycle and supply chain of products, including food. But, to have more sustainable beef, this actually requires input from the beef industry (which does seems to be happening on some level) and is a process that is going to take time and effort to make lasting changes.
When you consider beef, chicken, fish, coffee beans, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, eggs and all the other food types on the menu, this is again a complex task and probably a bigger challenge than just dealing with packaging and waste at a store level.......And, what packaging do those foods come in when delivered to the stores? I have no clue as to what waste is created just from stock deliveries, but this is just an example of some of the hidden aspects that us consumers may not ever see or even consider when we have our sights set on a burger.
If you do want to read a bit more on their sustainability plans, head to their Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Report.
So, I'm a little bit of a fence sitter with their sustainability situation for now. I'm not promoting a visit to McDonald's, but I can appreciate some of the changes they have implemented, which are quite a bit more advanced than non-corporation take-away joints.
Yes, they should make it better, but it's complex and is going to take time. We can probably make a little bit more effort too at an individual level every time we opt for fast food.
What do you think?
Are McDonald's better or worse than other options, and are they really as bad as we tend to think?
For anyone who doesn't want to totally quit their burger habit, check out this previous post on How To Make Your McDonald's Visit Zero Waste Friendly