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8 Ways for Fast Food Companies to Green Their Packaging

Raz Godelnik
| Monday February 27th, 2012 | 2 Comments

Packaging might not be the first issue to come into mind when you think about the impacts of the fast food industry. It’s true that packaging is not connected to obesity, food safety, animal rights, impact on food systems and some other major issues. But it’s definitely connected to depletion of natural resources, loss of biodiversity, waste, and climate change. Most of these impacts, explains Dogwood Alliance derive from the use of paper, the largest component of fast food packaging. Now, a new report provides a roadmap for fast food companies on how to reduce their packaging footprint.

The report, “Greening Fast Food Packaging: A Roadmap to Best Practices,” outlines eight key attributes of environmentally friendly fast food packaging and provides guidance for fast food companies on how to assess environmental impacts in the supply chain. In addition, the report highlights leaders in the fast food industry like McDonald’s (yes, you heard it right) and Starbucks (you heard it right again), as well as companies that lag behind like KFC.

To learn more about this report, I got in touch with Scot Quaranda, Campaign Director at Dogwood Alliance.

TriplePundit: How important is packaging if you look at the big picture of environmental and social impacts of the fast food industry?

Scot Quaranda: Fast food is ubiquitous and of course there are many issues associated with the industry that deserve scrutiny.  That said, all fast food, whether eat-in or take-out tends to come in some type of packaging and all of that packaging really adds up in terms of use of natural resources. The Southern US is the largest paper producing region in the world and the number one product being produced here is packaging. By taking a closer look at the impact all of this packaging has on the forests and communities of our region and providing a simple roadmap to greener packaging we hope to make a difference on at the very least on that level.

3p: Is making fast food packaging greener also beneficial in terms of cost savings or is it actually more expensive?

SQ: Greener fast food packaging can be good for the corporate bottom line. Moving through the various attributes we identified there are numerous opportunities for companies to save money.  Indirectly, being green is good for the corporate brand and can increase loyalty and customer base.  More directly, by reducing the overall use of packaging you save money in material costs and if you add to that smarter shipping, a company can save money on transportation costs.  If you encourage re-use, you use less packaging, which saves money and increasing in store recycling, individual restaurants and chains can cash in by selling those materials to recycling facilities. All in all, it is not simply something to feel good about, a company can save and even make money too.

3p: What is the most important factor that gets these companies to take action – is it pressure from customers? NGOs? Greater understanding of the benefits of sustainability?

SQ: I would say it is a combination of consumer and environmental pressure along with visionary corporate leadership. Obviously it sometimes takes pressure to raise awareness around these important issues, but the biggest changes we have seen have come after the CEOs and upper level management respond to the pressure not with a slick PR campaign but instead by taking the reins and developing an implementable vision that they share throughout all levels of the company. This has clearly been the case with Starbucks, McDonald’s and Quiznos who have buy in on sustainability issues from the top all of the way to the bottom of the company.

3p: How attentive is the fast food industry to your efforts to green up packaging?

SQ: It varies across the board, but lately we have seen some big shifts from the largest players in the industry. For example, McDonald’s announced an industry leading environmental packaging policy last year that increases overall use in recycled paper in its packaging as well as eliminates some of the most controversial fiber being used like paper that comes from natural forests that have been converted to tree plantations. The report identifies a whole host of companies that have taken small to big steps in each of the eight key areas. There are of course still companies that continue to greenwash rather than address environmental packaging issues, but we hope by shining a light on some of these key issues that will change.

3p: Where fast food companies that read your report and think you might have a point should do? What is the first step?

SQ: The first step is to develop an environmental packaging policy that addresses some of the key issues we identified in the report and work to develop buy in at all levels with the company as well as collaborate with environmental, community, and academic experts that can help create the roadmap to greener packaging.  Next comes the heavy lifting of looking across your supply chain and working with suppliers to reduce the overall material use, increase the amount of recycled fiber, and eliminate all controversial sources of fiber.

3p: Finally, any advice to customers? What can we do to help persuade fast food companies to take action?

SQ: For customers, there are a number of easy ways to make a difference.  When buying fast food, ask for less packaging for your order and ask the manager to work to green the restaurants packaging. If possible, bring your own mug or to-go container to eliminate the need for new paper, styrofoam or plastic packaging. If you are feeling more passionate, plug into efforts from environmental organizations, like the Kentucky Fried Forests campaign, to make a difference in that way. And of course if you own or work at a restaurant or have friends that do, share this report with them so that all restaurants big and small can see how their packaging can be greener.

[Image credit: Dogwood Alliance]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.


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  • http://www.kajembren.com/ Kaj Embrén

    Good business practise.Read more about waste and producer responsibility at http://bit.ly/rTbt4P 

  • Jbelle942

    Great article!  No matter what kind of business, we all have a responsibility to consider the environment even if your priority is to maximize profits.  Businesses can still save the planet while also saving money by minimizing unnecessary packaging.  IKEA even has a job title of “air hunters”, people in charge of looking for empty packaging space.  As far as fast food, I think we still have a long way to go.  Why on earth, for instance, is Subway STILL handing out a plastic bag with every single purchase?