Fast food industry shifts towards a more sustainable future

After years of harmful practices, the industry is finally taking steps in the right direction.


Fast food is designed solely for mass production and commercial resale, with a strong priority placed on speed of service. With 541,642 fast food restaurants worldwide, fast food is arguably the world’s most favorite meal. However, this $797.7 billion industry is unapologetically destroying the environment. 

Nearly 36.6% of adults consume fast food daily, producing mountains of paper, plastic and styrofoam waste. Fast food chains prioritize “to-go” packaging culture, contributing to plastic pollution of land and water through their disposable packaging. In 2018, McDonald’s reported that 153,000 metric tons of plastic packaging were used for cups, lids and utensils alone.

“Less than 14 percent of plastic packaging, which is the fastest-growing form of packaging, gets recycled,” wrote environmental expert Peter Lehner in an article for the National Resources Defense Council. “In addition to being a real waste of materials, single-use food and beverage packaging is a prime source of the estimated 269,000 tons of plastic pollution currently floating around in the world’s oceans, harming turtles, whales, seabirds and other marine life, as possibly human health as well.”

According to National Geographic, eight million tons of plastic waste make its way into the ocean annually. Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic waste, have been found in over a hundred different marine life species. Once in the ocean, plastic waste is virtually impossible to retrieve. However, plastic in the oceans is impacting not only the aquatic ecosystems but human life as well. 

“Ocean pollution is deeply unjust. Its impacts fall most heavily on low-income countries, coastal fishing communities, people on small island nations, indigenous populations and people in the high Arctic – groups that for the most part produce very little pollution themselves,” explained Philip Landrigan, director of the Boston College Global Observatory on Pollution and Health. “These populations rely on the oceans for food. Their survival depends on the health of the seas.”

In a report conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2016, the research found that American-based companies in India, such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway and Dunkin Donuts, could add the equivalent of nearly one million tons of carbon emissions in the next four years.

By reducing food waste, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and lower the carbon footprint,” sophomore Navya Garg, president of the Fend off Food Waste Club wrote. 

Although 32 billion pounds of food waste is generated in American fast-food restaurants alone, there are solutions to these problems. For example, donating excess food to homeless shelters in an attempt to recycle food waste. Companies are even changing their packaging in an effort to become more environmentally sustainable.

“As of 2021, approximately 82.7% of our primary packaging materials, and 96.8% of our primary fiber packaging comes from recycled or certified sources, aiming for 100% certified, recycled or renewable materials by the end of 2025,” wrote McDonald’s in an official company statement.

Some consumers see food and trash waste as an impending issue and are actively trying to take a step in the right direction. In fact, Oak Park High School strives to heal the environment with its own waste and recycling system.

“Oak Park continues to work towards preventing food waste!” wrote Garg. “This year they set up a food composting system, but this system could be improved by placing more emphasis and setting up more composting stations, making it more accessible across campus.”

With society placing more emphasis on environmental sustainability and applying pressure on big-name companies to comply, only time will tell the effect these companies’ changes will have on the world.