How Fast Food Chains Could Prevent Water Pollution

The food isn’t the only part of the fast food industry that’s killing us–they’re the number one source of litter. But a few simple fixes and nudges could help fast food lovers waste less.

fast food trash

Having seen pictures of the Pacific Trash Vortex, we know people aren’t very good at keeping their garbarge from floating out to sea. But by the time trash is in the ocean, it’s hard to know where it originally came from. That’s why Clean Water Action recently sent out volunteers to pick up and examine hundreds of pieces of trash found at six streets sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. This trash would normally be carried by the wind and storms to inland and coastal waterways before eventually ending up in the ocean.


“The quantities of trash and plastic
pollution in waterways are increasing dramatically. California regulators have been responding to this problem but the result is
that the local government is having to spend millions of dollars in controlling trash. This is a
short-term solution that doesn’t get at the root cause of the problem,” explains Miriam Gordon, California director of Clean Water Action.

The biggest root problem, according to Clean Water Action’s trash pickup adventures, is fast food packaging. Napkins, wrappers, straws, and other items from chains like Burger King and McDonald’s made up 49% of all the trash found on the streets. Other major culprits included items from convenience stores, grocery stores, and coffee shops.

Local litter enforcement won’t fix the problem; there simply aren’t enough resources for that. Instead, the “real opportunities are going to come from working with the fast food industry,” says Gordon.

One simple potential solution: napkin dispensers. Napkins were the second most found trash item (after cigarette butts), but Gordon speculates that waste–and costs–could be slashed if fast food vendors spring for napkin dispensers. “We’ve spoken to restaurant owners who felt that they were spending too much money on napkins. Napkin dispensers make it hard to grab more napkins than you need, so [they] save money, and there are fewer napkins that can become litter.”


Even just asking customers if they need napkins, straws, and utensils before loading up their take-out bags could make a difference. Many of the straws found on the street by Clean Water Action were still in their wrappers.

Starbucks is something of a model for the takeout industry. The coffee chain made a commitment this year to serve 25% of beverages in reusable mugs by 2015. But there is still plenty of room for big fast food chains to help with the problem, save money and resources, and maybe even gain a little publicity. “We need to start raising awareness of the need to be more conservative about how much disposable product to give out to customers,” says Gordon.

[Top image by Flickr user Lulu Vision, all others by Clean Water Action]

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more