Egregious Packaging Hall of Fame: Fast Food Restaurants That Defy Waste with Savvy, Sustainable Packaging

by , 11/06/11

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One in four Americans eats at least one meal a day in a fast food restaurant. Besides it being an arguably high-calorie and low-nutrient choice (processed food loses vitamins and minerals at each step of shipping and preparation), not many seem to care. After all, even when calorie information is offered, it’s usually ignored (only about 15% of people will use the info to make a decision about what to eat). It’s no surprise then, that people who don’t care about what they put in their bodies don’t care how much packaging is left over after they’ve eaten. But some do, and they tend to be the same people who will write a letter of complaint (or write a blog post?). So, also unsurprisingly, those fast food restaurants that cater to more health-conscious consumers also have less volume and use more recyclable and compostable materials in their disposable packaging. While many traditional fast food restaurants have legitimately reduced packaging in recent years (including McDonald’s and Burger King), the three highlighted after the jump have done the most.

In China, fast food often comes on reusable plates – the only disposable thing here is the plastic drink cup. In the US, there can be a full-on garbage bag full of plastic containers, styrofoam drink cups, plastic forks, paper napkins and sauce packets, most of which are unrecyclable. Image via Flickr User Fifikins.

Chipotle, Pret a Manger and Subway are three popular and growing restaurant chains that not only serve healthier food (not that you can’t get 1,000 calorie lunches there if you try), but their packaging is not only visually appealing and fun, it’s significantly more sustainable.

Photo courtesy of Flickr User Arinami

I have to admit that if I’m totally biased on anything I could write about, Chipotle is it, as I frequent it at least once a week. Once I get a craving for their black bean with peppers and onions (hold the rice) and guacamole and salsa soft tacos, I’m done for. They call their offerings “food with integrity” and not only do they use organic ingredients, they work with local farmers, all at a pretty price-competitive cost to the consumer. Fresh, tasty and healthy, they each come wrapped in a bit of paper and foil, and get carried home in a whimsically-printed paper bag that I often reuse to sneak homemade popcorn into the movies or recycle with my other paper.

Chipotle’s well-designed and minimal packaging is not a fluke; it’s the result of serious thought and effort that goes into how sustainable – and stylish they are. They’ve gotten some recognition for just the design, never mind that you don’t have much to throw out once you’ve devoured your burrito. And their stores are built with eco-friendly materials –  their new Illinois store has just received LEED certification.

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