5 Ways the Fast Food Industry Affects the Environment

Rachel Lark - July 25, 2022

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As the world continues to recognize the climate crisis, customers are looking more critically at industries contributing to it. Food is a giant industry, and so are the environmental impacts of that fast food.

It’s a convenient option for busy Americans and necessary for some families since it’s less expensive than healthier food options. However, with fast food so prominent in our society, we’re looking at five ways the fast food industry affects the environment, and what we can do about it.

1. Energy Use 

Food production takes up around 19% of the energy used in the United States each year. The fast food industry takes up a lot of that.

Lights, stoves, fryers and other electronics take significant energy. This combined with the production of restaurant materials and transportation helps create a large carbon footprint.

Electricity takes up 75% of a fast food restaurant’s energy consumption, fueling fryers, refrigerators, and heat and air conditioning units. 

2. Packaging

Fast food is the primary source of litter in the US, adding up to 49% of it. Burger King, McDonald’s, Seven Eleven, Starbucks and Wendy’s are the majority of this litter. Reusable resources could eliminate up to 33% of it. 

Restaurants face obstacles to sustainability, like operational needs and state regulations. These challenges leave them responsible for 78% of the total single-use disposable packaging. 

Around 81% of adults in the United States say they’re concerned about the plastic crisis and how companies contribute to it, with 62% saying they’d like a company more if they switched to recyclable packaging. This statistic is pushing companies to come up with sustainable packaging options to meet customer desires.

Some fast food corporations, like Burger King and McDonald’s, are phasing out polystyrene and testing eco-friendly food containers. 

3. Food Waste

Americans waste up to 40% of the country’s food each year and is another one of the huge environmental impacts of fast food. This statistic can be hard to swallow since 53 million Americans face food insecurity. One of the biggest causes is our portion sizes. We expect large portions from restaurants but are more likely to throw away fast food leftovers than save them. 

This leads to 85% of food waste in the US from outside the home belonging to fast food restaurants. 

4. Water Contamination

Though they produce edible foods and drinks, the fast food industry is pushing to reduce its impact on water sources. 

The issue is not from the food and beverages but an aspect of their packaging. Several fast food chains have packaging containing per-and polyfluorinated substances, also known as PFAS.  

These chemicals help waterproof the bags and containers that food comes in, preventing the packaging from breaking down when they have food and drinks inside them and keeping outside substances from accessing the inside of the packages. 

In the creation, use, and disposal of the package PFAS can enter water sources, exposing humans. Scientists call them “forever chemicals,” and they could cause various detrimental health effects. Research shows they contribute to cancer, liver damage and a weakened immune system. It’s unknown if there even is a safe amount of exposure to these chemicals.

5. Emissions

Beef is a significant meat source for fast food restaurant and burgers are one of the most popular options. However, cows are one of the worst agricultural products for the environment. They contain methane and releasing the gas into the air contributes to climate change. 

Meat and dairy emissions will likely make up 70% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Fast Food Restaurants Facing the Climate Crisis

Several fast food restaurants have devised initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Domino’s has committed to achieving zero net emissions by 2050. McDonald’s and Chipotle are working to source their food sustainably and offer more non-beef options. Starbucks is working towards giving back to the environment then it takes by replenishing clean water sources and planting trees. 

We’re unlikely to see a completely sustainable fast food source soon, but the industry is working towards a better future.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.