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 systems, including agriculture and the rest of its parts, use about 30% of the world’s energy. This energy counts for 30% of the total greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture and food worldwide. About 70% of this power is after it leaves the farm, being consumed by these industries:

  • Marketing
  • Shipping
  • Storage
  • Processing
  • Transportation

The restaurant business is another evident contributor to excess energy consumption. 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. With the uptick in food delivery services, this may only get worse.

Another correlation with rising energy use in food production is a growing global population.

2. Packaging

Fast food packaging is a global concern. Its popularity emanates from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it also washes up on shorelines. It accounts for 88% of coastline litter, consisting of bags, wrappers, cutlery, and more. Notable contributors include Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, and more.

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.

Though, many chains are committing to sustainable initiatives to try and fix their reputations. Some fast food corporations, like Burger King and McDonald’s, are phasing out polystyrene and testing eco-friendly food containers. Publicity over PFAS is becoming more mainstream, and people are worried about exposure to these forever chemicals in conventional fast food packaging.

3. Food Waste

The world is responsible for 2.5 billions of food waste annually, and everywhere is in the middle of a food crisis. The U.S. is the most guilty party, with 120 billion pounds thrown out yearly. Around 32 billion pounds of it is the fast food sector alone.

This statistic can be hard to swallow since 44 million Americans face food insecurity, with 100% of counties in the U.S. containing instances of it. 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. 

4. Water Contamination

Though they produce edible foods and drinks, the environmental impacts of fast food is pushing to reduce its damage 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 so the environmental impacts of fast food can go down.

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.

This post has been updated May 27, 2024, with more updated information.

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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.