Did you know that, overall, Americans recycle at the lamentable rate of 34.5 percent, with plastic packaging at 14 percent?
What this means is the majority of food packaging ends up at landfills or, even worse, as street litter that may end up swept into the ocean. Then it’s an environmental disaster, because marine life may eat it once it degrades into tiny pieces. Sea turtles typically have stomachs full of this stuff.
My focus is on fast-food chains. Food and beverage packaging are one of the most visible forms of waste. This is not just bad for the planet, it’s bad for business. Major product brands are wasting about $11.4 billion a year in potential savings by failing to incorporate recycling into their packaging choices.
Two non-governmental organizations (NGO) analyzed 47 companies based on what they call the "four pillars of packaging sustainability” — source reduction, or switching to reusable packaging; recycled content; recyclability and materials use; and boosting materials recycling. None of these companies, which included big players in the industry, earned the report's highest "Best Practices" status. Only two companies got the nod for "Better Practices." Eight companies, including several fast-food places in Lompoc, got the "Poor" designation for showing little to no leadership on packaging sustainability, based on information they make public.
A local coffee purveyor, part of an international conglomerate, got top marks for using 10 percent post-consumer recycled content here in coffee cups, offering to serve its drinks in reusable mugs, and switching the material in its cold-beverage plastic cups to one that produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Another international fast-food corporation was commended for using 33 percent post-consumer recycled content in its paper sandwich boxes, reducing the weight of its packaging and pledging to phase out foam cups. Still a long way to go.
It is difficult for consumers to be knowledgeable as packaging has gotten more complex. Not only are the triangle designations confusing but it turns out only the numbers one and two end are usually recycled. Numbers go up to seven and few above two do get recycled by the sorters in Santa Maria going through Lompoc‘s recycle bin materials.
The U.S. has one of the lowest overall recycling rates of any developed nation. Almost no fast-food company has committed to making recycling bins available for customers. What's the use of handing customers recyclable cups, and then not giving them a way to recycle them? Or putting out a recycling bin, but failing to tell customers what to put in it? A fully thought-out sustainability policy should look at the full life cycle of packaging, from how it's made and used through disposal.
San Francisco and Seattle, and probably more by now, have led the way by enacting ordinances requiring recycling and composting bins at all businesses. Such measures show it can be done, and it can help reduce waste significantly.
Wouldn’t it be great if Lompoc could enact such an ordinance? I hope City Council members are reading this. A county ordinance is appropriate. Where is it? Waiting for businesses to correct themselves voluntarily is like waiting for your pet to be house-trained without guidance.
Fuller and more consistent recycling of fast-food containers really can be done by fast-food stores. And I know that some are trying to improve. But until I see real changes made in this regard, this is a good reminder for me to mostly eat at home. It’s cheaper, healthier and better for our community and environment.
Rosemary Holmes is a Lompoc resident and board member of the Sierra Club’s Arguello Group, Los Padres Chapter. Forward View is a progressive look at local issues. For information please call 736-1897.