Which Fast Food Companies Are Polluting Our Oceans the Most?

From Starbucks and Subway to Domino’s Pizza and Dairy Queen, most U.S.-based fast food companies could be doing a lot more to use a lot less plastic. So could mega-brands General Mills, WalMart, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive and Panera.

Why does it matter? Because so much of the plastic packaging these companies use is ending up in the ocean, rather than being captured and recycled.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and As You Sow examined the packaging practices of 47 fast food/quick service, beverage, and consumer goods/grocery companies and found that none of them attained the “Best Practices” status the two groups have deemed necessary to make a significant dent in plastic waste.

Among the 47 tested, Starbucks and McDonald’s surprisingly landed in the “Better Practices” zone, while the following fast-food companies landed in the lowest-ranking category:

  • Arby’s
  • Quizno’s
  • Burger King
  • Wendy’s
  • Jack in the Box
  • Dairy Queen
  • Domino’s Pizza
  • Papa John’s Pizza

The groups looked at the kind of packaging used, whether the packaging was recyclable, able to be composted, or made of recycled content, and what the companies are actually doing to promote the recycling of their packages. Though plastic packaging is the fastest growing form of packaging in the U.S., only 14 percent is being recycled, at an annual loss of $11.4 billion in potential recycling revenue.

“Most leading U.S. fast food, beverage, and packaged goods are coming up significantly short of where they should be when it comes to the environmental aspects of packaging,” said As You Sow’s senior vice president Conrad MacKerron. “These companies have not sufficiently prioritized packaging source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content, and recycling policies.”

“Single-use food and beverage packaging is a prime component of the plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways, which kills and injures marine life and poses a potential threat to human health,” noted Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist and packaging report project editor, for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Companies have an opportunity and an obligation to curb this pollution.  Better packaging design and improved support and adoption of recycling are key to turning the tide on this unnecessary waste.”

Plastic litter from takeout orders — including cups, plates, and straws — has long contributed to urban blight. But increasingly it’s being swept into waterways and oceans, where it partially degrades and harms marine life. A Clean Water Action study of street litter in four Bay Area cities found that the biggest source of street litter (49 percent) was from fast food.

Every company studied can do more. Andrew Behar, As You Sow CEO, said: “Industry foot-dragging is one of the primary reasons we recycle only 14 percent of plastic packaging in the U.S. The more we boost recycling rates, the more we reduce the use of virgin natural resources and mitigate emissions that contribute to climate change.”

Some of the companies have vowed to improve. WalMart has set a goal of increasing the amount of post-consumer recycled plastic in its products and packaging by 3 billion pounds by 2020. Procter & Gamble has agreed to make 90 percent of its packaging recyclable by 2020. Unilever has committed to increase post-consumer recycling of its packaging 15 percent by 2020 in its top 14 global markets.

Still, more needs to be done. Phasing out the use of plastic packaging wherever possible needs to be a top priority. Enabling consumers to recycle more plastic is also critical. Many communities either offer no curbside recycling, or restrict what they pick up to paper, glass and aluminum. With the support of the companies that make it and use it, plastic packaging should move from the bottom of the reuse-and-recycle totem pole to the top.

You can read more about the report at As You Sow.


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Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago

Sharing... I don't eat at fast food restaurants; they kill you and the planet (not to mention the poor animals abused)

Warren Webber
Warren Webber3 years ago

Live long and prosper!

Bernie 2016!

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

I agree with Barb H. I don't see how a company can be held responsible for what their customers do.

Emily a
Emily M3 years ago

thank you for this article.

Barb Hansen
Ba H4 years ago

Just because you force companies to produce less plastic, doesn't mean customers are recycling it, much less not littering. More ticketing for littering, especially people throwing cigarette butts out their car windows. Your car already stinks, it might as well be dirty too.

ERIKA S4 years ago


Val K.
Val K4 years ago

It's not the companies that are polluting our oceans, but their customers. Too many people are pigs.

Lisha Velez Rodriguez

Thank you so much for this article!!!

Heidi Aubrey
Heidi Aubrey4 years ago

Dominoe's Pizza? Any pizza for that matter, comes in a cardboard box. I didn't see Pizza Hut. But Dominoe's and Papa John's? I don't see the difference.

I knew that Starbuck's was making bigger strides to be more conscious of the environment-but really all they, pretty much, sell comes in a paper cup. Not that difficult of a task.