Many people take time to separate recyclables and compostables from the garbage. But according to a new report, the food industry isn't doing enough to help.
The food we eat is often packaged in unrecyclable or difficult-to-recycle materials, says the report from a non-profit group called As You Sow. The group, which promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility, said only about half of consumer packaging in the U.S. ends up being recycled, and the rest ends up as litter or in a landfill.
In 1985, McDonald's began selling a hamburger that came in a giant container made of polystyrene, commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam. The two separated compartments in the package allowed the cool side to stay cool and the hot side to stay hot.
The magic of the McDLT, as it was called, was in the giant polystyrene package. By 1990, the hamburger was no longer on the menu, and neither was the polystyrene.
As You Sow surveyed 47 fast-food chains, beverage companies, and consumer goods and grocery companies in the U.S. — most of which sell their products in Canada — including McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Domino's pizza and Heineken. It found food packaging today isn't much better than it was 30 years ago. In some cases, it's worse.
Shift from glass to plastic
Report author Conrad MacKerron said there has been a shift away from polystyrene since the '80s, but there has also been a move away from glass, and towards plastic.
"We think it's of particular concern because of the contribution to plastic pollution in the oceans," he said. "Plastic litter from takeout orders ... plastic cups, straws, plates and so forth contribute to plastic litter, but it is all swept off into waterways and oceans, where they degrade and harm marine life."
Plastic is the fastest-growing form of packaging, but only 14 per cent is recycled, the report indicates.
MacKerron said a lot of plastics are recyclable. But some, like black Category 7 plastics, require specialized equipment. And even some of the stuff that should be easily recycled just never is.
"So our major finding is that leading beverage, fast-food and packaged good companies are coming significantly short of where they should be when it comes to addressing the environmental aspects of packaging," MacKerron said.
"We believe brand leadership is sorely lacking. These companies have not sufficiently prioritized compostablity, source reduction, recyclability, recycled content and related recycling policies."
The biggest offender might just be your morning cup of coffee. It used to produce zero waste, apart from some ground beans and maybe a compostable paper filter.
These days, millions of households are equipped with single-cup brewing machines. The largest company behind those machines, Keurig, produced 9.8 billion little plastic single-serve coffee pods last year, known as K-Cups.
Mike Hachey, the CEO of Egg Studios, is running a campaign that he's dubbed 'kill the K-Cup', in an effort to curb the rise of the single-serve coffee machine.
"We started out with Keurig machines in our offices... and very quickly realized that this packaging is a problem," he explained.
So while we may be free of the once ubiquitous Styrofoam container, we've grown accustomed to a lot of food packaging that isn't a whole lot better.