Reprinted from the March-April 1996 ULS Report, this article is as relevant today as it was over 20 years ago.
Let’s say that you’ve just finished having lunch at your favorite fast food place. You get up from the table and take the tray to the trash receptacle. As you open the little swinging door and watch the garbage glide into the waiting bin, you notice how many burgers, wrappers and boxes have piled up. What a waste, you think. Why can’t this place do something about it?
But how much of the waste and resources used are represented by what you see in the trash? 60%? 70%? 80? How about 1%! Approximately 99% of all the waste actually occurs before you even eat the burger! How, you might ask, is that possible?
We’ll begin with the bun, which is principally flour. Flour starts out as grain, which has to be grown using water, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and sometimes fungicides. The seed is sown, and the grain harvested, using tractors, threshers and combines. It took plenty of raw materials to make these machines, and it takes plenty of fuel to keep them running. And while running, they produce air pollutants and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which can lead to climate change.
The grain is transported by truck or rail to storage sites, milled into flour, stored in warehouses and sent to bakeries. Milling and baking require energy to produce dough and buns, which are then wrapped and shipped to fast food stores. Between every step, all of the transportation burns fuel and again produces pollutants.
Other farm products that went into your burger include tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and lettuce. The tomatoes and cucumbers required further processing to be turned into ketchup and pickles, respectively.
You might ask where’s the beef? Once again, we start with grain, which is used for feed. After vast amounts of food and water are fed to the cattle, it’s off to the stockyard for sale, and then on to the processing plant. At the plant, cattle are slaughtered and rendered, with the beef cut, packaged, cooled and shipped to warehouses in energy-intensive refrigerator cars and trucks.
At the warehouse, the meat is aged, ground into patties, boxed, frozen and stored. It is then shipped in freezer trucks to restaurants where it’s kept cold until ready to cook (with energy, of course). At this point, the bun, pattie, condiments and packaging all come together to bring you the final product.
We should also point out the resources needed to produce the wrappers and boxes themselves. Paper is processed from trees, using large amounts of water, chemicals and non-renewable resources. Plastic is processed from oil or natural gas, also utilizing non-renewable resources. Both materials require energy to produce and ship, resulting in carbon dioxide generation and some air or water pollution.
By now, it should be very apparent that the resources used and waste generated at stages we don’t see are far greater than those we do notice when confronting the restaurant’s trash bin. In fact, ecologists generally agree that each link in the food chain increases resource use by a factor of 10. This means that if we ate the grain, and not the meat, we would save about 90% of the resources and reduce an equal amount of waste.
From this analysis, it’s fairly obvious that a full-scale, cradle-to-grave look at a particular issue produces very different conclusions than a simple “which package is better?” approach. The technical term for such an examination is Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA for short.
We’re not going to tell you to give up meat completely. But we do have a few suggestions that apply Life Cycle thinking to help you easily reduce waste while saving resources and money:
- Skip the meat altogether and belly up to the salad bar. You’ll reduce your waist while you reduce waste and conserve resources. Materials and energy savings will be on the order of 90%. (It’ll probably be cheaper, too.) In fact, if we all give up meat just once a week, we can reduce consumption by almost 15%. This is three times the effect that vegetarians, who never eat meat, can produce. (As the old saying goes, there’s strength in numbers.)
- Try the fish or chicken. It takes 60-75% less production energy for these foods to deliver the same amount of protein as feedlot beef.
- Buy only what you think you can eat and go back for seconds if still hungry. Spoiled and unconsumed food account for the biggest portion of fast food waste — almost 40%.
- Go international. Per capita beef consumption in Mexico and the Far East is 55% and 80% less, respectively, than in the U.S. Why not try a meatless bean burrito or a veggie stir fry? Great taste, less waste.
- If the restaurant offers free refills, order a smaller size and go back for seconds.
- Try not to take handfuls of condiment packages. If offered too much sauce, ketchup or mustard, please give back what you don’t need while still at the counter. Local health laws may preclude the server from taking back even sealed packets once you’ve handled them.