Ecology: How the Fast-Food Industry is Destroying Our Environment

If fast food’s detrimental effects on our health weren’t enough, the problem extends beyond our bodies. Our junk food addiction is, quite literally, creating our very own junkyard.

‘Every day around 84 million adults consume fast food in the US alone, but the inconvenient truth of convenience food is that the environmental impacts of the sector’s meat and dairy products have hit unsustainable levels.’ – Jeremy Coller, Founder of FAIRR and Chief Investment Officer of Coller Capital.

Fast-food packaging creates environmental waste

Underwater shot of plastic bags and plastic straws floating in the ocean
Image Source: foodprint.org

The environmental impact of food packaging is colossal. From plastics in our water systems to the toxic by-products of manufacturing processes, our fast-food favourites linger in the ecosystem years after our five-minute munch.

Due to the plastic colonisation of our waterways, the United Nations have declared the plastic pollution of our oceans ‘a planetary crisis.’ This catastrophe threatens both humans and all aquatic life. According to Ocean Conservancy, ‘Plastic has been found in 59 per cent of sea birds like albatross and pelicans, in 100 per cent of sea turtle species and in more than 25 per cent of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world.’

Packaging materials make up a majority of the litter that settles on our beaches and other waterways. There are billions of pounds of plastic ground into trillions of pieces in our oceans. However, only about five per cent of these plastics are visible on the surface; the rest is swirling below or has settled onto the ocean bed. Just because the problem does not appear to be at crisis level on the surface, doesn’t mean it isn’t!

Polystyrene takeaway boxes floating on the surface of muddy water
Image Source: Shutterstock/wk1003mike via theconversation.com

Regrettably, most fast-food packaging is devised as single-use, meaning most wrappers cannot be reused or recycled and are immediately thrown away (in bins and on streets). The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that food packaging material and containers were the greatest contributor (almost half) of all municipal solid waste.

Fast-food packaging

Empty McDonald’s packaging messily sprawled out across a table
Image Source: saferchemicals.org

Most of our fast food is parcelled in a range of synthetic materials from ceramics and glass to paper, cardboard and plastics. The most common – and most worrying – is the extensive use of rigid plastic and glass. This type of waste does not easily break down in the environment.

Voluminous layers of material encase our fast food. Usually, plastic or aluminium foil swaddle our takeout food. Most restaurants wrap the food again with paper or put it into Styrofoam containers, then put these containers into plastic or paper bags. Within these bags, you often find plastic cutlery, straws and napkins. Unfortunately, the time it takes for these materials to decompose significantly overshadows the time it takes to both prepare and consume a fast-food meal.

Sustainable packaging for a sustainable future

According to the EPA, there are three main packaging reduction strategies. These are:

  1. Source reduction or waste prevention
  2. Reuse
  3. Recycling and Composting

Source reduction

Source reduction involves minimising waste before its creation. This is one of the most effective ways to reduce the environmental impact of fast-food packaging. Source reduction prevents the manufacturing of excessive materials in the first place while also reducing purchasing costs, handling costs and disposal fees.

Reuse

A young child using empty egg shells to plant plants
Image Source: cheapestloadofrubbish.com.au

Along with appropriate food safety and handling practices, businesses can use leftover food to reduce waste and cost. Using excess leftovers to create other meals minimises food wastage and limits surplus food production. The EPA emphasises the importance of flexibility – being flexible in menu planning to accommodate the use of leftover food from the day before is the key to success. For instance, using day-old bread to use breadcrumbs or croutons.

After feeding people, another reuse strategy is to divert food waste to local farmers and others who can use vegetative food scraps to feed animals.

Cows in a fenced-off green area eating vegetable compost from the ground surrounded by chickens
Image Source: ABC Rural: Sally Bryant

The EPA also has recommendations for reusable packaging ware. Replacing one-time-use packaging with reusable products minimises waste and environmental impacts while saving money. For example, the waste-conscious alternative to cardboard boxes could be reusable totes or pallets. Comparably, the alternative to disposable cutlery is reusable cutlery (or keeping disposables behind the counter to discourage people from taking more than they need).

A good resource for reusable packaging can be found here.

Recycling and composting

Three rubbish bins arranged side-by-side: a black landfill bin, a green compost bin and a blue recycling bin
Image Source: recology.com

Recyclable materials include cardboard, plastic, glass, steel and aluminium. Compostable materials include food, cardboard, paper or wooden packaging (e.g., coffee stirrers) and other organics. Composting food and compostable packaging can yield a soil amendment. Subsequently, fast-food companies can use this soil onsite or sell it for agriculture and landscaping purposes.

Company and environmental benefits from reducing food waste and packaging

Fast-food companies may actually benefit from reducing food wastage and packaging. They can save money by lessening excess purchases and minimising waste disposal costs. Furthermore, responding to stakeholder pressure by improving environmental performance can enhance the business’ image and reputation among customers, the public and regulatory authorities.

Our environment certainly benefits too. By reducing food and packaging wastage, we can reduce the risk of pollution incidents that result from the burning of waste material. Furthermore, a reduction in packaging waste may also reduce the amount of greenhouse gas from landfill sites, so environmental pollution from hazardous waste becomes less common.

Fast food production requires factory farming

Pigs arranged in narrow cages side-by-side
Image Source: Mercy For Animals Canada / Flickr via news.wttw.com

Animal agriculture is the world’s highest-emitting sector without a low-carbon plan. But the immense environmental costs of factory farming (including global warming, threatened biodiversity, and pollution) are too vast for these facilities to remain dominators of our food system.

Factory farming is a mode of intensive agriculture characterised by the mass confinement of animals in small, derisory living spaces that allow large companies to maximise profits when selling their bodies. These facilities are creating some of the worst environmental devastations that currently plaguing the planet, most prominently, water and air pollution.

Water wastage and water pollution

Polluted water run-off leaving a factory
Image Source: saveemeraldwater.com

The production of fast food requires vast amounts of water. According to the EPA, more than a quarter of the total freshwater consumption per year in the U.S is used to grow wasted food.

Researchers have directly linked water pollution to factory farming. Confining enormous numbers of animals in small spaces rather than allowing them to spread across distances means their waste cannot fertilise the land without harming it. Water pollution occurs when freshwater runoff from factory farms intersects with sewage streams. The water carries the sewage away and it eventually meets the oceans. This agricultural runoff is one of the leading causes of water pollution in the U.S.

What happens when this contaminated water reaches the sea? It leads to dead zones. These are areas in the ocean that have reduced levels of oxygen in the water caused by the growth of algal blooms. As suggested by the name, dead zones kill marine life.

Emission of VOCs and air pollution

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are carbon-based chemicals that have a high vapour pressure at normal room temperature (for example butane, toluene, pentane, propane, xylene, or ethanol). VOCs are an environmental hazard because they emit toxic fumes. When exposed to sunlight, these chemicals react with nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide to form tropospheric ozone; this is known as ground-level smog. At ground level, this smog can stimulate diseases in plants and hinder fertilisation. According to recent studies, grilling four burgers in a fast-food restaurant emits the same number of VOCs as a car that drives for 1,000 miles.

VOCs can also have harmful effects on indoor air quality and human health. When people inhale these chemicals at high quantities, they can cause headaches and dizziness, memory loss and visual impairment. So, if you don’t care about the environment, at least care about your health!

Air pollution results from confining thousands of animals in small indoor areas. Shockingly, poultry farms – where birds are raised indoors for eggs and meat – are one of the worst sources of air pollution. Large volumes of faeces ferment in the birds’ litter, emit ammonia – a toxic gas.

Hundreds of white chickens crammed into a small indoor space
Image Source: yayale

Western diet = fast-food?

The front of a McDonald’s store
Image Source: thefoodxp.com

Almost anywhere you travel you’re likely to find a piece of home – the golden arches, the ‘Big M’, Maccas. In 2019, there were around 2200 McDonald’s fast-food restaurants across China alone, and they supposedly plan to double that number by next year!

Fast-food chains decide what ‘Western food’ is in Asia and South America. A common vision of the Western diet from non-Western people is food from KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other fast-food chains.

Corporate harm and fast-food companies

Pictograph of different fast food logos in the USA
Image Source: foodinusa.com

Corporate harm stems from company practices that are harmful to the environment and, because of their intertwinement with our money-making economy, are difficult to dismantle.

Fast-food giants are a harm industry involved in corporate harm. Very rarely do they seek approaches that value and protect their workers or the environment, nor do they hold any respect for the livelihood of the animals we eat and then waste. Indeed, corporate motives shape our food environment, and our choices are strongly influenced by the convenience, cost, and promotion of foods in our environment. Processed foods are widely available, cheap, and heavily promoted to us by corporations in pursuit of profits. While doing this, they avoid responsibility for the social costs of chronic disease and the environmental costs of food wastage and pollution.

Advertising and deception

Have you ever seen a fast-food ad on television? Vibrant images of family bonding and laughter paired with succulent, dripping lettuce and crispy potato fries inundate our screens. These images are how fast-food companies want you to see them, rather than what they are. Outward mirages of happiness, nostalgia and ‘good times’ conceal our accumulating junkyard. They conceal the squeals of tightly confined animals and the soft rasp of our earth through a piling pollution barrier. We watch these advertisements and subliminally associate fast food with positive outcomes.

Interestingly, fast-food companies also use colour psychology to win us over. Red is the colour most used by fast-food chains, followed closely by yellow and orange. Yellow and orange are colours that make people feel hungry. People often associate the colour red with emotion and passion. So, when viewers see red coupled with yellow and orange, they become passionately hungry. Is this deception? Or just fair play to be on top amongst a plethora of competing chains?

Picture collage of four fast-food restaurant logos: Wendy’s, McDonalds, In-N-Out Burger and Pizza Hut
Image Source: awgsalesservices.com

In this advertisement, KFC strategically plays into family values. Easy, fun ‘family time’ arises when fast food is present at the table.

Foods with the lowest ecological impacts have the highest health benefits

A big bowl of lettuce surrounded by little bowls of healthy ingredients on top of a wooden table
Image Source: CC0 Public Domain

Foods that have the lowest environmental (and health) impact include wholegrain cereals, nuts, vegetables, fruits, legumes and olive oil.

A study conducted by the University of Michigan in partnership with Tulane University was among the first to compare climate impact and nutritional value of U.S. diets using real-world data. The study found that climate-friendly diets associated with lower carbon footprints were also healthier for the human body.

‘People whose diets had a lower carbon footprint were eating less red meat and dairy—which contribute to a larger share of greenhouse gas emissions and are high in saturated fat—and consuming more healthful foods like poultry, whole grains and plant-based proteins.’ – Diego Rose (Lead author and professor of nutrition and food security at Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine)

If you’re interested, here is an online calculator where you can determine your personal carbon footprint

Food for thought

Cartoon illustration of a man staring at a melting earth on his plate with angst
Image Source: Aliza Aufrichtig / NY Times

Many ecology blogs are about (or at least have a section about) food and diet. Our food intake is one of the things we can actively control.

We can quite easily alter our individual diets. But there is a much greater challenge inherent in restructuring fast-food giants that speed ahead with profit motives and convenience chained to their doors. Many of us, no matter how subliminal, remain locked inside. In an expeditious world that prioritises an efficient and fast-paced lifestyle, fast food is our alliance, our helper. So maybe the solution lies beyond our diets. Perhaps we need an interrogation of the way we live in a hurried, time-bound society.

‘My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died … we controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt … we destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.’ – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

So, next time you tuck into a late-night McDonald’s snack, think beyond the burger box. Consider what the convenience of a speedy snack means for the long-term survival of our earth.

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