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Fast Food Waste Threatens our Marine Environment, Drags Down Diversion Rates
America's fast food culture is hurting more than our waist lines. With its grab-and-go, overly packaged food stuffed with unnecessary condiments, fast food outlets are our country's primary source of urban litter and a significant hurdle to local communities' waste diversion goals.
Litter characterization studies across the country have recognized fast food restaurants as the primary identifiable source of urban litter. The most abundant type of non-cigarette litter is fast food packaging such as foamed polysytrene. This foamed plastic, a staple of fast food restaurant, becomes a permanent fixture in our environment when littered. Easily travelling through gutters and storm drains, it eventually reaches the ocean. Indeed, plastics from urban runoff is the largest source of marine debris.
Furthermore, fast food restaurants are a drag on local communities' waste diversion rates. Currently, less than 35% of fast food stores' waste is diverted from landfills, the vast majority of which is cardboard. Very little food packaging and almost no fast food plastic is currently diverted from landfills. This low diversion rate is surprising considering the vast majority of restaurant waste is not plastic--its main litter culprit--but rather paper, a perfectly recyclable resource. A 2012 study of fast food waste in Austin Texas found that as much as 85% of the waste thrown out by fast food chains could have been recycled or composted.
The problem of fast food is not insurmountable. Like many areas of waste generation, a few simple, economical changes in the way the fast food industry handles its waste could change what currently is a major source of unrecyclable, permanent litter to a model for other businesses.
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