Green Police: KFC busted for where it gets material for its buckets

Jim Motavalli on KFC green policiesGreen PoliceThe next time you snag a bucket of

Kentucky Fried Chicken, you might want to give a thought to just where the bucket came from. According to the forest activists in the Dogwood Alliance, a sizable percentage of the Colonel's U.S.-market red-and-white tubs were sourced from trees in the environmentally pristine Green Swamp in far southeastern North Carolina.

The Green Swamp is not old-growth forest. But it is an intact southern swampland of the type that was once common, but is now rare. According to the National Scenic Byways Program, the region is "dense with unique botanical qualities. Unusual plants and flowers can be seen throughout the Green Swamp." The Nature Conservancy adds that the Green Swamp "is the center of an incredibly rich assembly of plant life. Featuring a complex of longleaf pine savannas and limesink ponds bound together by thousands of acres of pocosin (a type of evergreen shrub bog), the area is home to more than 400 vascular plant species and provides habitat for animals such as red-cockaded woodpecker and black bear." Want to see a meat-eating venus flytrap or a carnivorous pitcher plant in the wild? This is one of the few places to do that, but habitat is fast disappearing.

KFC does not want to talk about the Green Swamp. In response to an email about the issue, spokesman Rick Maynard sent me a generic statement. "KFC is as committed to the environment as we are to our food and to our customers. We are proud of the steps we have taken so far to reduce our environmental footprint and are committed as a brand to do even more in the in future. It's an ongoing journey and we are keeping our customers informed along the way."

The company (part of the giant Yum! Brands conglomerate that also includes Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut and A&W) has also declined to dialogue on this issue with environmental groups. Scot Quaranda is campaign director of the Dogwood Alliance, a coalition of forest campaigners whose central focus is protecting the Southern forests that are being turned into tree plantations. He said that KFC "kept blowing us off when we tried to talk to them about increasing the use of post-consumer paper in their packaging. We weren't asking them to change on the spot, but we wanted to make sure that, over time, they would stop making buckets from one of the special places in the south."

KFC is not the only fast-food company to exploit southern forests. The Dogwood Alliance has identified 11 "fast food junkies." But the alliance says that several, including McDonald's and Quiznos, are in discussions with them about reforms. KFC and some other Yum! companies are not.

Perhaps in response to Dogwood Alliance's "Kentucky Fried Forests" campaign, KFC posted a page on "Packaging and the Environment," which claims, "30% of every Bucket Lid (calculated by weight) is made out of recycled content." It also says "by May, 90 percent of our paperboard packaging will be Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certified."

But many activists are critical of SFI, preferring the alternative Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Quaranda calls SFI "a green coat on a clearcut, because it allows some of the worst practices." According to Tennessee ForestWatch, SFI "was created by an industry group, the American Forest and Paper Association, due to pressure created by increasing interest of consumers in the environmental risks associated with timber cutting. In order to get a 'green stamp of approval,' a board made up largely of industry representatives established 'sustainable' harvest standards and a mechanism for inspection."

KFC doesn't actually cut trees. For that, it has partnered with International Paper, which Quaranda described as "a laggard in reforming its practices." After NPR's "Marketplace" featured a story on the Dogwood Alliance, International Paper responded with a statement saying that the group's charges are "not true." IP, it said, has "a longstanding policy of using no wood from endangered forests," and supports multiple certification standards, including both SFI and FSC. "We are very proud of the products we make and the way we make them," the company said.

If we wrote any more about this, we'd have to really get into the weeds about paper and packaging certification, and your eyes would glaze over. But it's easy enough to understand that one of the "jewels of the South" is being clear-cut. Sustainable alternatives exist, including those made mostly of post-consumer fiber. It's not a "secret recipe" – suppliers would be glad to set KFC up.

There is evidence that swamp draining and ditching in this sensitive region is permanently degrading the hydrology of the Waccamaw River, altering the ecosystem for the rare animals and plants who live there. It would be no great hardship for KFC to look elsewhere for its tubs and leave the Green Swamp alone.

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