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.
Pret a Manger is a bigger deal in England than in the US, but they have stores throughout NYC, DC and Chicago. With several hundred stores between the two islands of Britain and Manhattan, and other locations in the US and Hong Kong, they are a strong and growing player. I love that they always have plenty of variety in vegetarian foods, that they change their selections seasonally, and that everything always does taste very, very fresh. Their packaging is also pretty minimal, with no sacrifice for design – everything at Pret is always attractive and makes you want to reach out and grab it (and eat it). Colors, textures and flavor come together in a way that’s not what one expects from fast food.
Sebastian Wright, VP of Food at Pret A Manger says, “When we design packaging it needs to fulfill various criteria. It needs to be able to attractively present, then protect and transport our product safely. As a grab and go concept, portability is key. The blend of materials (card, plastic and print) is carefully thought through to ensure we can recycle our products.”
Subway is now one of the world’s largest chain restaurants, with over 35,000 locations around the world, and so that means its packaging choices make a difference. Subway wraps its hot and cold sammies in paper embossed with the company’s logo, and they often come in paper bags, though I have also had my sandwich put in clear plastic bags (which look like oversized vegetable bags from the supermarket) or white plastic bags with handles – those usually when I’m on a roadtrip and in the middle of nowhere for some reason. These weird bags are too small to be reusable for most things and weirdly shaped so stuff can’t be stacked in them well – they are the one fail that I’ve noticed when it comes to the Milford, CT-based footlong chain.
Napkins are made of recycled, unbleached paper, and styrofoam was phased out in 2007. I think that Subway has room for improvement with its packaging (it would be great if they would ask you if you even need a bag, which if you are walking 5 feet away to eat the sandwich, you definitely don’t), but overall is doing a good job of keeping it simple and focusing on the food. Subway also has a number of green buildings, which shows real corporate support of greener initiatives. According to Subway’s site: “Today, the majority of the packaging used in our restaurants in North America is made with recycled content and 100% can be recycled or composted (where facilities exist). We are in the process of moving to these packaging specifications globally.”
Subway is justifiably proud of its minimal packaging, and likes to play those efforts up when it gest a chance. They’ve done all sorts of wacky things, including commissioning a dress made from subway lunchboxes and cookie bags for a Project Subway fashion show in Chicago.
Honorable mentions go to Argo tea, a small but growing chain of tea-focused shops that also feature very healthy mixed salads and sandwiches, all of which are packaged with thoughtful, low-resource containers, like compostable oval boxes for the salads and simple wraps on the sandwiches. I’ve reached out to them several times, but they have never gotten back to me with more information, unfortunately.
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)