Fast Food's Green Trend: Making Big Macs and Lattes More Earth-Friendly

Starbucks styrofoam cup by MyNameMattersNot,
Starbucks styrofoam cup by MyNameMattersNot,

When you think of green companies, fast food chains don't exactly top the list. Fast food, after all, takes ingredients grown in monocultures around the world, transports them in gas-guzzling trucks and ships, then prepares them in air-conditioned kitchens before swaddling them in piles of plastic and paper that will eventually find their way into landfills. Overall, not an Earth-friendly process.

But what if fast food companies could find ways to chip away at those problem areas?

Some, like Chipotle, have started using solar cells and hyper-efficient plumbing to cut down on their carbon footprints. Others have installed recycling bins and segregated trash, to ensure that compostable materials and recyclables get disposed of properly.

But perhaps most impressively, some fast food chains are taking aim at their packaging. To anybody whose memory stretches back to the 1980s, a company like McDonald's might feel like the least-green business on the planet. After all, it spent decades packing its billions and billions of burgers into petroleum-based Styrofoam containers.

For that matter, fast food coffee can be similarly un-green. Between Styrofoam cups, plastic lids and cardboard sleeves, your basic latte is eight ounces of rainforest-destroying caffeine surrounded by another few ounces of Earth-killing waste products.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Starbucks and McDonald's have emerged as leaders in the green fast food movement. For the past few years, the two companies have been working on improving their sourcing, cutting down on their packaging, and lobbying the FDA to increase the amount of recycled fibers that are allowed in fast food packaging.

Recently, Starbucks took the trend a step further with its reuseable cups. Sold for $1 apiece, the cups last for about a month, cut down on the company's paper waste, and offer customers a low-cost way to improve their own carbon footprints. Not surprisingly, they're also profitable: By reducing waste, Starbucks trims its trash hauling costs. Beyond that, it also drives sales -- customers save 10 cents on their refills if they use the cups, a factor that seems likely to lure them in more often.

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Starbucks isn't the only chain hopping on the reusable trend. Many companies offer pricey reusable mugs, but a growing number are bringing in inexpensive, semi-disposable, reusable vessels. For example, Just Salad, a New York-based chain, offers reusable salad bowls. When customers bring them back in, they get free toppings on their salads.

The key to these sorts of initiatives is that they don't just benefit the environment: They also benefit the companies that employ them. After all, while Just Salad's bowls ensure that less plastic makes its way into landfills, they also give customers an added incentive to walk back through its doors at lunchtime. As an increasing number of restaurants discover the profit potential in going green, it will only become easier for consumers to cut down on their own waste.

It is, however, possible to go to far. Bob's, a Brazilian fast food company, is using the ultimate recyclable packaging: their burgers come wrapped in edible, rice-based paper. Then again, if the point of packaging is to ensure that your precious food doesn't come into contact with the outside world, it's worth asking if edible wrappers defeat the entire purpose of packaging.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.