Can McDonalds Make our Food System More Sustainable?

At McDonalds, even incremental progress towards achieving sustainability goals can be significant. Today, the restaurant giant announced a new commitment to up its recycling game. Under the new goals, McDonalds says it will encourage and enable recycling in every one of its 37,000 restaurants around the world, while making its consumer-facing packaging more sustainable. Noting that recycling regulations and infrastructure vary from city to city and country to country, McDonalds also vowed to “help influence powerful change.”

In 2018, the idea of putting out recycling bins may not feel revolutionary for many of us, but this is significant in the fast food industry where recycling for that type of packaging is still a struggle. In 2015, NRDC graded 16 fast food chains on their packaging and gave only two, including McDonalds, a passing grade.

Also, serving 69 million people a day does add up. If McDonalds delivers, the new measures could eliminate lots of fossil fuel-derived plastic, boost demand for sustainably certified paper sources, and create additional market demand for recycled-content materials. By how much? All I know is that you have to multiply something by 69 million to get the answer. 

We hope the company will expand on these goals in the future, including setting targets for the amount of packaging recycled or composted in their restaurants, as well as benchmarks for boosting recycled content in their packaging from the start.  But clearly, these positive steps from a global fast food giant hold promise for continuing to move the needle on better packaging and recycling practices industry-wide. If McDonalds gets serious about being a change agent in communities that lack recycling and composting infrastructure, it could also help jumpstart local recycling economies.

With its massive purchasing power, McDonalds can do a lot of good from farm to fork. In 2015 the company began eliminating antibiotics in its chicken supply chain, setting the bar for the industry (but we’re still waiting for it to tackle pork and beef). Last month, the company launched a “McVegan” burger in Europe, a plant-based alternative to beef which is notoriously greenhouse gas intensive. These are important, urgently needed solutions, but time is running out for problems like antibiotic resistance and climate change. I hope McDonalds won’t keep us waiting.

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