Week of 02/18/2007

Dear EarthTalk: What are the fast-food chains doing to cut back on—or at least recycle—the huge amount of paper, plastic and foam they use daily? Are there any laws or regulations to force them to be good environmental citizens?

—Carol Endres, Stroud Township, PA

Currently there are no federal laws or regulations in the U.S. specifically aimed at getting fast food chains to reduce, reuse or recycle their waste. Businesses of all kinds must always obey local laws pertaining to what must be recycled versus what can be discarded. And a small number of cities and towns have local laws specifically designed to force businesses to do the right thing, but they are few and far between.

There have been some strides in the fast food business with regard to packaging materials and waste reduction, but it has all been voluntary and usually under pressure from green groups. McDonald's made headlines back in 1989 when, at the urging of environmentalists, it switched its hamburger packaging from non-recyclable Styrofoam to recyclable paper wraps and cardboard boxes. The company also replaced its bleached paper carryout bags with unbleached bags and made other green-friendly packaging advances.

Both McDonald's and PepsiCo (owner of KFC and Taco Bell) have crafted internal policies to address environmental concerns. PepsiCo states that it encourages "conservation of natural resources, recycling, source reduction and pollution control to ensure cleaner air and water and to reduce landfill wastes," but does not elaborate on specific actions it takes. McDonald's makes similar general statements and claims to be "actively pursuing the conversion of used cooking oil into biofuels for transportation vehicles, heating, and other purposes," and pursuing various in-store paper, cardboard, delivery container and pallet recycling programs in Australia, Sweden, Japan and Britain. In Canada the company claims to be the "largest user of recycled paper in our industry" for trays, boxes, carry out bags and drink holders.

Some smaller fast food chains have garnered accolades for their recycling efforts. Arizona-based eegee"s, for instance, earned an Administrator's Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for recycling all paper, cardboard and polystyrene across its 21-store chain. Besides the positive attention it has generated, the company's recycling effort also saves it money in garbage disposal fees every month.

Despite such efforts, though, the fast food industry is still a large generator of waste. Some communities are responding by passing local regulations requiring recycling where applicable. Seattle, Washington, for example, passed an ordinance in 2005 prohibiting businesses (all businesses, not just restaurants) from disposing of recyclable paper or cardboard, though violators only pay a nominal $50 fine.

Perhaps policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere could take a lead from Taiwan, which since 2004 has required its 600 fast-food restaurants, including McDonald"s, Burger King and KFC, to maintain facilities for proper disposal of recyclables by customers. Diners are obliged to deposit their garbage in four separate containers for leftover food, recyclable paper, regular waste and liquids. "Customers only have to spend under a minute to finish the trash-classification assignment," said environmental protection administrator Hau Lung-bin in announcing the program. Restaurants that don't comply face fines of up to $8,700 (U.S.).

CONTACTS: eegee"s; Taipei Times, "Restaurants set the new recycling trend”

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental pros and cons of switching to plant-based "bio-fuels" to reduce our reliance on oil?

—Jim Dand, Somerville, MA

There are many eco-benefits to replacing oil with bio-fuels like ethanol and biodiesel. For one, since such fuels are derived from agricultural crops, they are inherently renewable—a°nd our own farmers typically produce them domestically, reducing our dependence on unstable foreign sources of oil. Additionally, ethanol and biodiesel emit less particulate pollution than traditional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel fuels. They also do not contribute to global warming, since they only emit back to the environment the carbon dioxide (CO2) that their source plants absorbed out of the atmosphere in the first place.

And unlike other forms of renewable energy (like hydrogen, solar or wind), biofuels are easy for people and businesses to transition to without special apparatus or a change in vehicle or home heating infrastructure—you can just fill your existing car, truck or home oil tank with it. Those looking to replace gasoline with ethanol in their car, however, must have a "flex-fuel" model that can run on either fuel. Otherwise, most regular diesel engines can handle biodiesel as readily as regular diesel.

Despite the upsides, however, experts point out that biofuels are far from a cure for our addiction to petroleum. A wholesale societal shift from gasoline to biofuels, given the number of gas-only cars already on the road and the lack of ethanol or biodiesel pumps at existing filling stations, would take some time.

Another major hurdle for widespread adoption of biofuels is the challenge of growing enough crops to meet demand, something skeptics say might well require converting just about all of the world's remaining forests and open spaces over to agricultural land. "Replacing only five percent of the nation's diesel consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately 60 percent of today's soy crops to biodiesel production," says Matthew Brown, an energy consultant and former energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "That's bad news for tofu lovers."

Another dark cloud looming over biofuels is whether producing them actually requires more energy than they can generate. After factoring in the energy needed to grow crops and then convert them into biofuels, Cornell University researcher David Pimental concludes that the numbers just don't add up. His 2005 study found that producing ethanol from corn required 29 percent more energy than the end product itself is capable of generating. He found similarly troubling numbers in making biodiesel from soybeans. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says Pimentel.

There is no one quick-fix for weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and the future will likely see a combination of sources—from wind and ocean currents to hydrogen, solar and, yes, some use of biofuels—powering our energy needs. The "elephant in the living room," however, that is often ignored when considering energy options is the hard reality that we must reduce our consumption, not just replace it with something else. Indeed, conservation is probably the largest single "alternative fuel" available to us.

CONTACTS: Ecology Center Biofuel Factsheet; Earth911 Energy Conservation Factsheet