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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Fast Food Garbage Makes up 50% of Street (and Pacific Gyre) Litter


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, aka the Pacific Gyre is roughly the size of Texas and contains about 3.5 million tons of trash, floating between Hawaii and San Francisco. About 80 percent of marine plastic pollution comes from the land. Clean Water Action (CWA) decided to learn more about the sources of trash that end up in the San Francisco Bay Area so the non-profit organization decided to collect samples of street litter from four Bay Area cities (Oakland, Richmond, San Jose, and South San Francisco) from October 2010 through April 2011. CWA collected trash from a few locations in each city.

CWA found that the biggest source (49 percent) of litter is fast food. The five most significant sources were McDonalds, Burger King, Seven Eleven, Starbucks and Wendy's. Up to 31 percent, according to CWA's findings, of the trash collected could be eliminated by reusable alternatives.

"The quantities of trash and plastic pollution in waterways are increasing dramatically. California regulators have been responding to this problem but the result is that the local government is having to spend millions of dollars in controlling trash. This is a short-term solution that doesn't get at the root cause of the problem," said Miriam Gordon, California director of CWA.

Gordon told Fast Company about one simple solution to help reduce trash: napkin dispensers. Gordon said, "We've spoken to restaurant owners who felt that they were spending too much money on napkins. Napkin dispensers make it hard to grab more napkins than you need, so [they] save money, and there are fewer napkins that can become litter."

"Even just asking customers if they need napkins, straws, and utensils before loading up their take-out bags could make a difference," the Fast Company article stated. "Many of the straws found on the street by Clean Water Action were still in their wrappers."

Starbucks sets an example

Starbucks is cited by the article as an example of a company that is trying to reduce its trash pollution. In the company's Global Responsibility Report 2010 it lists the goal of making 100 percent of its cups reusable or recyclable by 2015. With over 17,000 retail sites worldwide, achieving that goal would mean much less trash ending up in garbage cans or on the streets.

In 2008, Starbucks set the goal of developing recycling solutions for its paper and plastic cups by 2012 in order to meet its 2015 goal. "We’re currently on track to meet this goal," the report stated.

Starbucks hosted cup summits in Seattle in May 2009 and Boston in April 2010 where the company met with government officials, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, recyclers, competitors, conservation groups and academic experts. Early last year, it started a pilot program in seven of its Manhattan stores to test the recyclability of its paper cups with old corrugated cardboard. Starbucks expanded the program to 86 of its New York stores later in the year. This year it plans to launch recycling programs "in a number of our store communities."

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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