Earth Day Undone: Fast Food “Trash”

Yesterday was Earth Day. It brought Kansas City one of its few lovely weather days so far this year. Temps in the 60s and wind slight. I met my husband for lunch at one of his employer’s picnic tables. When it was time to dispose of our food wrappings, we went to a line of three receptacles. Unlike a fast food restaurant, where you typically find one or two “trash” bins to push everything off your tray into, this picnic area challenged its diners to read signs and sort.

One receptacle was for specific recyclable containers. More unusual, another was for food waste to make compost for nearby garden plots. The third receptacle was for non-recyclable trash. The latter wasn’t a surprise. The sign on it was: “Landfill Waste.”

What if all “trash” cans and receptacles said “landfill waste”? Would it snag your hand for a moment, make you think about what you’re putting into the container? Would it flick a picture into your mind of a bulldozer trying to roll a mountain of trash into the earth? It did for me.

Since Earth Day began in 1970, America’s trash disposal habits have changed so that most of us recycle from slight to large degree. However, our society wastes far more than it did when convenience eating wasn’t a part of daily life for most. I have no memories of my mother ripping open a boxed frozen entrée or taking me to a fast food restaurant for lunch during the late ’60s or early ’70s. Our family would go to the walk-up McDonald’s windows to order paper-wrapped burgers on rare special occasions, usually weekends. Now, any fast food restaurant is filled with parents or grandparents and children any day of the week. Many menu items are packaged in cardboard and plastic.

For the past several years, after eating at fast food places, I’ve snagged any plastics with recyclable triangles embossed on the bottom and brought them home to our recycling bin. It seems a tiny gesture toward the earth, but I wonder what a large gesture it could be if everyone would do the same. I’m perplexed that most fast food restaurants do not have recycling bins and receptacles, particularly when they serve food and drinks in recyclable plastics. Why are corporate leaders devoid of environmental conscience in this area? What is stopping them from doing the right thing?

Cost is one sure answer. Separate receptacles are needed and they require space. To empty extra receptacles, sort and wash out recyclables if necessary, and fish out misplaced trash, would add some employee time. In our community, all the recyclables with the exception of glass go into the same container. Most fast food restaurants don’t sell glass bottle beverages. So, it seems the added effort could be minimal.

Since our community’s curbside recycling program started taking cardboard years ago, my family’s household recycling almost always doubles our trash output. How many pint-size plastic milk jugs and salad containers could be pulled from the trash of fast food restaurants? I envision a horrifying amount.

When asked to complete restaurant surveys or give feedback, I always suggest recycling bins and ask why the company doesn’t recycle. Change can happen. Several chain restaurants have responded to the environmental push for cardboard over Styrofoam to-go boxes.

As I rush from schools to after-school activities to evening meetings and make a fast food stop somewhere in-between, guilt sets in (not just for the nutritional transgression). My lifestyle makes me complicit with corporate penny-pinching non-recyclers, particularly if I don’t change it (eat from home or boycott those restaurants) or find a way to send voice louder and more adamant on this issue.

Far short of those, I will continue to keep our family’s plastics out of fast food trash cans — and encourage others to do the same.