Can You be Green and Eat Fast Food?

That’s the question that went through my mind when this year’s Greenopia fast food ratings crossed my desk.

Each year, the green-living website rates the environmental impact and healthy dining characteristics of popular fast food chains. The rankings are based on factors like sustainable building design, integrity of the supply chain, and participation in recycling and composting programs. We learn that McDonald’s is greener than Burger King, and Subway is doing a better job than Taco Bell. Good to know, yes, but doesn’t this beg the question? Can you be green and still eat fast food?

Can fast food ever be green?
Fast food chains generate tremendous amounts of waste. Recycled or not, no other dining format can touch its levels. And once you peel back the wrappers and packaging, you have the food miles and greenhouse gases, and the salt, fat, and high-fructose corn syrup of factory farmed, heavily processed foods.

Fast food will ultimately hit the wall when it tries to go green.
We, the customers, are hooked on fast, cheap, and convenient. The fast food giants can improve their use and disposal of packaging materials. They have the clout to push food producers toward more sustainable options that are organic, fairly traded, and additive-free. But the high volume, low cost model will always dictate the terms and impose its own limitations. Processed travels better than fresh, fruit-flavored is cheaper than fruit, and a Big Mac is still going to cost less than a salad. Getting it ‘to go’ will always mean wasteful packaging, and cars will continue to idle in drive-through lanes.

Let’s go back to the original question: Can you be green and eat fast food?
There are plenty of anti-waste crusaders and Slow Food advocates who would answer with an emphatic, unequivocal ‘no;’ that even the greenest of fast food options run counter to their missions, producing more waste and carbon emissions than home cooking served on real dishes. But isn’t that like telling the owner of a Prius that hybrids are pointless, or even counterproductive, because they still burn fossil fuels?

While it’s true that a bicycle is a greener, more ethical option than any car, it obviously doesn’t work for everyone and in all circumstances. As an alternative, a hybrid car is a laudable, pragmatic solution, and even a catalyst for change—the presence of each one on our roads helps promote a worthy message in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, most of us won’t be giving up our quick, inexpensive meals eaten on the fly any more than we will quit driving. So when we opt for fast food, we need to patronize those chains that are making a true effort to minimize their impact on the environment, the ones given a 3- or 4-leaf rating by Greenopia.

Choosing to eat even the most ethical, sustainable fast food is an imperfect option in the same way that a Prius is an imperfect vehicle, and the self-righteous among us might challenge the ‘greenness’ of the choice. But it represents distinct, incremental progress and creates public awareness that just might be the catalyst for further change on our way to a greener future.

Just how bad is fast food’s impact on the environment? Jamais Cascio breaks it all down for you in the Cheeseburger Footprint.


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3 Responses to Can You be Green and Eat Fast Food?

  1. @Laura – you’re absolutely right. It takes true dedication. And making the choice to not take part in the support of anti-slowfood actually (or taking part in the fast food industry) makes your choice “not” green (if there is such a thing at all). Everything else (ie like dawn says about Chipotle) is greenwashing!

  2. Dawn says:

    Great points to bring up – we struggle with this so often; being green vs. being lazy and going to Chipotle for lunch.


  3. Everyone wants a desirable label and being green is one of them these days. Being green really requires lifestyle change and that includes businesses. Businesses could really do a lot to change and educate the public, but the bottom line is just too important.

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