McDonalds could learn a thing or two from the Chinese about sustainable food packaging.
This delicious dim sum dish consists of steamed glutinous rice filled with chicken, mushrooms, sausage, scallions and shrimp. It’s called “Nuo mi ji” in Chinese (Mandarin) or “Lo mai gai” in Cantonese and it’s nicely packaged inside a lotus leaf wrapping. Although the Chinese have been serving this dish for a very long time, in modern times it illustrates an interesting opportunity for sustainable food packaging. I can’t think of a better way to package food than to wrap it inside a fallen leaf. Where I live at least, leaves aren’t going away anytime soon and nothing is worse than seeing 16 bags of full of fallen leaves inside those big orange plastic garbage bags headed for the landfill.
When it comes to fast food, there is absolutely no reason that a visit to a fast food chain should result in any waste whatsoever. In McDonalds’ 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility report, it claims that it has “been thinking and acting green for more than thirty years”, boasting that in the 1990’s, it “eliminated 300 million pounds of product packaging by redesigning items and reducing materials used.” Although this may be true, this is more of a testament to its wastefulness and poor packaging prior to the 1990’s than anything else.
It’s 2009 right now and when you walk into a McDonalds and order a single hamburger, you’re given by default a large bag containing the fully-wrapped burger and a pile of napkins, even if you’re eating in. You actually have to specify that you don’t want a giant brown bag (albeit one with interesting quotes from Olympics athletes scribed on it) and that you don’t need any napkins. After your meal, you’re presented with a single trash bin where you’re obliged to throw away the bag that was used for all of 30 seconds to transport your food from the counter to your seat, 20 feet away. And what do you do with the perfectly recyclable cardboard container that your burger was served inside? You have 3 choices: You can throw it in the trash bin, the garbage bin or the waste bin. Even to this day, there is no recycling container in McDonalds (in Toronto locations I’ve visited anyway).
Again from the Corporate responsibility report: “Our approach considers a product’s entire lifecycle. It starts with where we source our materials and the design of the food packaging. Finally, we look at “end of life” options such as recycling and composting. Why not make it sustainable from the outset? That’s the goal with our packaging.”
Wouldn’t it be great if that sentence wasn’t just a load of fluff? Wouldn’t it make you feel good if the pimple-faced McDonalds employee handed you a hamburger wrapped inside a lotus leaf or even at minimum some form of recyclable wrapping?
A friend attended a conference recently and was introduced to a company called Verterra who uses fallen leaves that would have otherwise been burned to create party-ready dinnerware (a fancy name for disposable plates/utensils). They use a process of applying steam, heat and pressure to create the dinnerware, and their products decompose after only 2 months. Here’s a fancy diagram that shows their process:
For some odd reason (wink wink) they fail to mention that their products are produced in India and shipped overseas so that we can enjoy our wasteful lifestyle. I suppose it’s a forgivable omission since a picture of a dirty ship in their fancy green diagram traveling halfway around the world probably wouldn’t sit well with prospective customers. I’m not one to support any kind of disposable dinnerware regardless of its composition, so this company wouldn’t earn my business anyway. But putting Verterra’s imperfections aside, the very fact that they’re using a natural, sustainable resource to create products that were historically unnatural and unsustainable is a step forward and opens all sorts of opportunities for other companies to follow suit.
The day that I see an influential fast-food chain like McDonalds using truly sustainable packaging is the day that I will start attending church, because if this were to happen, then there must be a God.
All Photos by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country (With the exception of the Verterra diagram)