The short answer seems to be “yes”, but the degree of its environmental impact is elusive.
As we’ll discuss, more direct evidence on the industry is needed in general, but what can be found does indicate that fast food is having negative repercussions on the environment.
Here, we’ll dive into the most prominent aspects of the fast food industry and what the data can tell us about its effects.
Mainly, we’ll be looking at fast food emissions, waste, and its influence on land before suggesting some alternatives.
How Does Fast Food Affect the Environment?
The environmental effects of the fast food industry can be difficult to quantify.
Typically, since fast food industries have an expansive role in the economy, from transportation along its supply chain to agriculture and producing foods, it’s no surprise that its effects can be hard to pinpoint.
For instance, the EPA highlights that emissions can be both direct and indirect as an industry sector may expend resources outside of its main facilities.
A local fast food restaurant, for example, might not use a vast amount of electricity, but when considering the sum of all franchises, their manufacturing and production lines, their carbon footprint can be significant.
Moreover, there can be quite a bit of variation from restaurant chain to restaurant chain.
Therefore, there will be some nuance in what we’ll discuss here, but there are some instances where we can directly see a connection between the fast food industry and its environmental impact.
According to a recent report by the Keep America Beautiful non-profit group, fast-food packaging waste, inclusive of plastic, paper, and polystyrene, amounted to a total of 800 million pieces of litter in 2021, making it the 10th largest litter source in the US.
These items have a lasting effect on the environment, as the CAW (Californians Against Waste Charity) points out, items like polystyrene, a foamed plastic, can travel great distances and end up in water supplies.
A somewhat controversial article in the Nature Journal even reports that nearly 90% of plastic waste found in marine habitats can be directly attributed to fast food, specifically takeaway wrappers, containers, bottles, and cans.
We note it is controversial because the FPA (food packaging service) has argued that the article doesn’t clearly distinguish fast food items from other types of packaging waste, questioning its scientific validity.
However, the journal in which the article was originally posted in, “Nature Sustainability,” peer-reviewed the information and notes the researchers collaborated with a number of other recognized institutions, such as the US Ocean Conservancy and several international institutes, presumably verifying their claims.
But aside from plastic and packaging waste, there are other areas to consider.
These are issues with food and water waste, which again are difficult to directly attribute to the industry itself as they pass through various supply chains.
However, research does indicate that a great deal of American agriculture is owned by the fast food industry.
While they don’t explicitly give the percentage for these claims, even if the amount of resources used attributable to fast food were relatively small, with growing global water demands, joined with total freshwater use exceeding supply by 25% already, in any scenario, the water waste from the industry is likely to take a significant environmental toll.
While many well-known fast food chains have promised to cut down on their greenhouse gases, a recent report by the Fairr Initiative, an investment network with an environmental focus, suggests that even though progress is being made within the industry, there’s a lack of transparency in how they will actually reduce emissions.
Notably, the report cites that the predominant emissions from major fast food chains sit in the scope 3 emissions category.
These are emissions that aren’t directly produced by the organization but through their infrastructures (supply chains, assets, investments, etc) and the distribution of products within and outside their organization.
With fast food chains, for instance, the most concerning scope 3 emission source is likely their interaction with animal agriculture, like meat and dairy, which can be hard to pin on the fast-food franchises themselves as they aren’t necessarily producing these products but selling them on.
Such products, whether the direct or indirect result of fast food industries, are sources of methane, a greenhouse gas commonly associated with the agricultural sector.
And these gasses, as explained by the EIA, can trap heat, resulting in greenhouse effects such as global warming.
But despite these known effects, as food demand rises, studies on food emissions suggest that affordability and limited access to non-processed foods will only lead to a further boost in fast-food chain production rather than a reduction.
And as other research concurs, for every additional fast food meal per week, greenhouse gas emissions increase regardless of a person’s background.
While they do stipulate that this has less to do with buying from fast food businesses than the type (i.e., meat-based meals) and frequency of meals, it’s evident from above that fast food may be the only option for a number of people as cheap food becomes more limited.
Even so, taking the contents of the meal itself out of the equation, there are other factors that indicate that fast food, on the whole, can be substantially more damaging to the environment.
Since agriculture plays a significant role in transforming land for livestock, it should be no surprise that land clearance and, as a result, deforestation is a factor in the fast food industry.
For example, Greenpeace has reported that the production of soy for animal feed is the biggest cause of the destruction of the Amazon forests, with around 1.2 million hectares (roughly 463.322 square miles) deforested between 2004 and 2005 alone.
The relationship between these figures and the US fast food market has been examined in a study that suggests increased consumption in North America is inevitably connected to the depletion of South America’s environmental resources.
Particularly, they highlight that the US’ increasing imports of livestock and beef from Latin America is a significant driver of deforestation.
However, what this data doesn’t show is the more general degradation associated with the transition to arable land.
Notably, research has pointed out that soil degradation is a central consequence of agricultural practices.
Tilling the land, for instance, causes erosion, which changes its physical properties, reducing its ability to retain water and nutrients.
Another concern is the chemicals used in farming activities, which can affect water supplies, such as eutrophication, where excess nutrient runoff causes dangerous algal blooms.
Not to mention that the use of various chemicals like pesticides can have a toxic effect on saprobes, soil-bound bacteria (those that decompose organic material), and water supplies, which is a critical aspect of how plants get their food.
Additionally, these chemicals can lead to overall nutrient loss in the long term (via the University of Oklahoma State).
And finally, and perhaps most worrying, as soil fertility decreases, it can take a long time for it to return to its natural state.
In fact, one book on soil conservation estimates as long as 100 years, depending on the degree of damage, making it a fairly limited resource.
What Are Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Fast Food?
While it’s easy to say something simplistic like “don’t eat fast food”, during these economically challenging times, this might not be an option.
Rather, a more structural perspective – for instance, changes to the industry that could help make it more eco-friendly is more likely to help address the issues we’ve mentioned in the long term.
For instance, an obvious choice is to reconsider fast food packaging itself.
A switch to packaging that uses plant-based or recyclable materials may be a viable way to cut down on waste.
But even if it were possible for this to be widely implemented, issues such as land use and agricultural emissions would still remain.
As it stands, the rise of plant-based options within the fast food industry is potentially a better possibility that may help to mitigate damage on a wider scale.
As a scientific review of the diet indicates, the switch to a plant-based diet can reduce the land use impacts of fast foods by as much as 84%. Specifically, there’s a 50-86% reduction for vegan diets and 27-84% for vegetarian diets.
This, coupled with reductions in water use and greenhouse gasses attributed to traditional agricultural commodities such as beef, may offer an overall more sustainable fast food industry.
And this even includes highly processed foods.
In particular, they compared what would happen if consumers switched to the Beyond burger, a plant-based beef substitute, instead of a regular beef patty and still found an 87-96% reduction in emissions, water use, and land use impact.
But again, waste would still have to be a consideration if this change were possible to execute on a large scale.
However, unlike simply focusing on packaging, where the onus to switch to more sustainable choices is on the fast food industry, consumers can more readily switch to plant-based if more fast food chains make it an option, and it’s more accessible to those on a lower income.