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Roya Sabri headshot

No, Fast Food Can’t Ignore Mounting Waste and the Plastics Crisis

As consumers become more aware of the waste including single-use plastics fast food companies generate, one brand has responded in kind with this plan.
By Roya Sabri
Fast Food

In the U.K., Burger King has just unveiled its “Burger King for Good” plan. The bright, color-blocked landing page touches on the fast food brand’s response to a range of issues, including animal welfare, responsible sourcing of ingredients, plastics use, diversity and inclusion, community support and healthy food.

One of the more quantified commitments in the company’s plan relates to plastics and builds on company-wide activity. In October, Burger King announced it would begin a trial of reusable sandwich boxes and cups at select restaurants in New York, Portland and Tokyo. The move connected to the corporation’s goal to source all packaging from renewable, recyclable or certified sources by 2025.

A fast food giant starts to diversify its plastics commitments

Burger King is taking its plastics commitments a step further than looking at sourcing. Additional aims include recycling 100 percent of packaging by 2025, eliminating the use of single-use plastics and using an average of 30 percent recycled content for other plastic items.

These additional commitments emphasize the gap between plastics legislation in Europe, and the lack thereof in the United States. Two years ago, the European Parliament voted to ban single-use plastics — some, like straws, by this year. Similarly, last year, England’s ban on certain single-use plastics came into effect.

Despite legislative progress, the fast food sector is lagging behind. Six years ago, Burger King sat at the bottom of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) ranking of quick service restaurants and the sustainability of their packaging. No restaurant had what the NRDC would call “best practices,” but Starbucks and McDonald’s were on top of the list with “better practices.”

Back in 2015, the NRDC reported that rival burger chain McDonald’s was an outlier in efforts to reduce packaging, phase out foam cups, include recycled content in its packaging and establish waste recycling goals. Burger King had not reported any commitments to such targets at the time.

Ocean plastic could outweigh fish by 2050

Nowadays, even fast food restaurants are finding that they can’t afford to ignore their contribution to the plastics crisis. Current trends point to plastic outweighing ocean fish by the year 2050.

Consumers are increasingly wary of corporations’ environmental footprints. An October survey by McKinsey & Company found that 55 percent of U.S. respondents were “extremely” or “very concerned” about the environmental impact of product packaging. Companies like Burger King have been seeing this trend come into focus in specific ways. In 2019, for example, two young girls petitioned fast food chains to stop producing plastic toys for kids’ meals, noting that children only play with the toys briefly before throwing them away. The petition was backed by a total of more than 550,000 supporters.

Though the anti-plastics stars seem to have aligned, other brands on the bottom of the NRDC’s 2015 list still haven’t addressed their resource use and waste production. Two examples, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen, haven’t made any public commitments. And Wendy’s hasn’t gone much farther than its 2019 goal of reducing the amount of plastic in its straws by 19 percent and noting that its plastic cups have been recyclable since 2007.

It is certainly time for fast food companies to pick up the pace toward sustainability. Doing so does not only help them align with customer preferences, but evidence suggests such a shift can also contribute to job growth. The NRDC estimated that California’s goal to increase its recycling rate from 50 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2020 would have created 110,000 recycling jobs. (Though the state’s most recent recorded recycling rate was 44 percent back in 2016.)

Yes — Burger King U.K.’s plastics commitments may seem meager compared to growing zero-waste goals, but they are a step in the right direction for the fast food industry. If anything, that should indicate to Burger King and its competitors that they have substantial work ahead of them.

Image credit: Burger King U.K./Facebook

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

Read more stories by Roya Sabri