Progress is Slow on Reducing, Reusing and Recycling Fast Food Waste

Some fast food chains cut waste voluntarily, but tougher regulation is needed

Oakland May Impose Nation's First Fast-Food Litter Tax
Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images
Dear EarthTalk: What are the fast-food chains doing to cut back on--or at least recycle--the huge amount of paper, plastic and foam they use daily? Are there any laws or regulations to force them to be good environmental citizens?
-- Carol Endres, Stroud Township, PA

Currently there are no federal laws or regulations in the U.S. specifically aimed at getting fast food chains to reduce, reuse or recycle their waste. Businesses of all kinds must always obey local laws pertaining to what must be recycled versus what can be discarded. And a small number of cities and towns have local laws specifically designed to force businesses to do the right thing, but they are few and far between.

Voluntary Fast Food Waste Reduction Makes Headlines
There have been some strides in the fast food business with regard to packaging materials and waste reduction, but it has all been voluntary and usually under pressure from green groups. McDonald’s made headlines back in 1989 when, at the urging of environmentalists, it switched its hamburger packaging from non-recyclable Styrofoam to recyclable paper wraps and cardboard boxes. The company also replaced its bleached paper carryout bags with unbleached bags and made other green-friendly packaging advances.

Some Fast Food Chains Offer Vague Policies on Waste Reduction
Both McDonald’s and PepsiCo (owner of KFC and Taco Bell) have crafted internal policies to address environmental concerns. PepsiCo states that it encourages “conservation of natural resources, recycling, source reduction and pollution control to ensure cleaner air and water and to reduce landfill wastes,” but does not elaborate on specific actions it takes. McDonald’s makes similar general statements and claims to be “actively pursuing the conversion of used cooking oil into biofuels for transportation vehicles, heating, and other purposes,” and pursuing various in-store paper, cardboard, delivery container and pallet recycling programs in Australia, Sweden, Japan and Britain. In Canada the company claims to be the “largest user of recycled paper in our industry” for trays, boxes, carry out bags and drink holders.

Fast Food Recycling Programs Can Reduce Waste and Save Money
Some smaller fast food chains have garnered accolades for their recycling efforts. Arizona-based eegee’s, for instance, earned an Administrator’s Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for recycling all paper, cardboard and polystyrene across its 21-store chain. Besides the positive attention it has generated, the company’s recycling effort also saves it money in garbage disposal fees every month.

A Few Communities Require Fast Food Waste Recycling
Despite such efforts, though, the fast food industry is still a large generator of waste. Some communities are responding by passing local regulations requiring recycling where applicable. Seattle, Washington, for example, passed an ordinance in 2005 prohibiting businesses (all businesses, not just restaurants) from disposing of recyclable paper or cardboard, though violators only pay a nominal $50 fine.

Taiwan Takes a Hard Line on Fast Food Waste
Perhaps policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere could take a lead from Taiwan, which since 2004 has required its 600 fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, to maintain facilities for proper disposal of recyclables by customers. Diners are obliged to deposit their garbage in four separate containers for leftover food, recyclable paper, regular waste and liquids.

“Customers only have to spend under a minute to finish the trash-classification assignment,” said environmental protection administrator Hau Lung-bin in announcing the program. Restaurants that don’t comply face fines of up to $8,700 (U.S.).

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