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How Green Can McDonald’s Go Before It Has to Face Its Food Problem?

| Thursday March 19th, 2009 | 1 Comment

Few people would argue that fast food is traditionally “green”, despite the slew of gourmet green fast food restaurants that have popped up recently. But Inhabitat’s coverage of student-designed biodegradable packaging brings up an interesting point: how green can fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King actually ever be?


The student-designed packaging has yet to be implemented by McDonald’s, but there are plenty of examples of traditional fast food restaurants trying to become more sustainable. A Carl’s Jr. in California is outfitted with a solar roof and LED lights. A Chipotle in Illinois features a six-kilowatt wind turbine. A LEED-certified Dunkin’ Donuts in Florida uses energy-efficient insulated concrete foam walls. And yes, a McDonald’s in Chicago has a green roof and a pavement that filters rainwater.
These are great innovations for the restaurant chains in question, and should be heartily supported. But at a certain point it becomes glaringly obvious that the centerpiece of their operations–food–is seriously unsustainable. Boutique fast food restaurants and even small chains like Burgerville can work out deals with local farmers to get sustainably-produced items, but it’s a different story for the major industry players. They are, at least, pretending to be sustainable–a 2007 McDonald’s billboard in Chicago featured growing lettuce plants that spell out “fresh salads”–but asking each individual chain restaurant to seek out local, organic food sources is near impossible.
Fast food chains could at least take a small step by offering select organic items, but at the moment it’s hard to see why they would bother. Burger King and McDonald’s have no trouble attracting customers with their watery vegetables and factory-fed meet, so they probably won’t seek out new suppliers.
Still, green building efforts should not entirely be discounted–fast food restaurants occupy hundreds of millions of buildings around the world, and could collectively save untold amounts of energy. For information on which restaurants are taking steps in the right direction, check out Greenopia’s fast food ratings.


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  • Mhallenbeck

    As a working professional with a busy life, mindful of sustainability and preferring a vegetarian diet, I often found myself wishing for a convenient and healthy fast food alternative. Fast forward 10 years to 2011 and I was operating my own restaurant with the healthy fast food alternative as part of our business model.  Our packaging was a mix of compostables and recycled/recyclable plastics which are becoming more widely available through restaurant suppliers.  One of our biggest challenges was with the takeout bags.  We were never able to source them affordably which locked us into using those horrible t-shirt bags.  Obviously, economies of scale work in anyone’s favor and that is one advantage that we did not have.  For the mom and pop shop with a very small profit margin, the extra cost for green packaging is a significant consideration.  McDonald’s and other large chains have the negotiating power to make the numbers work in their favor.  Green packaging, energy efficiency and waste reduction are the basics for greening a restaurant and the rest comes down to how you maximize that through brand association and educating your customers. 

    The larger issue for our restaurant was sourcing local/sustainable food products.  Thankfully, free range, grass fed meat is pretty easy to get through supplies but there isn’t a whole lot of choice on where it comes from.  Now you would think that the meat would be more difficult to get than the produce.  On the contrary, organic or local produce is where the real issue lies.  Sure if you are a premium restaurant with a well paid chef that is willing to seek it out on a daily basis, there are delights to be found.  If you are buying from one of the myriad of produce suppliers, you are being funnelled down a conveyor belt of conventional products that come from the highest yeilding crop at the time.  The dirty little secret is that produce suppliers do not want restaurants to buy organic for several reasons.  The main reason being that the profit margin on organic is much lower than conventional.  So once you get a pricelist on organic produce (if you’re able to achieve that much), the prices are hiked 3 to 4 times that of convetional in order to discourage you from buying.  This is the real kink in the hose for restaurants with a green agenda.