Here’s a problem you’ve probably run into when you go to a fast-food restaurant and order your favorite meal: When you pull up through the drive-thru and ask for ketchup or other sauces, you’re given pounds and pounds of single-use packets that you’ll never finish.
So a lot of us just…throw them away.
Turns out those little packets are creating a much bigger problem.
According to a 2019 Greenpeace report, 855 billion of these single-use packets were sold worldwide, and in the United States, less than 10 percent of them are actually recycled.
More From NBCLX
So how do we fix this fast-food sustainability issue?
Well, Tom Szaky is working on a solution through his company, TerraCycle.
“TerraCycle is a global mission driven waste management company, so we focus on things that normal garbage companies and recyclers generally do not do across 20 countries,” Szaky said. “We collect and recycle things that are very challenging to locally recycle.”
In 2021, TerraCycle partnered with Taco Bell on a sauce packet recycling program, giving customers a way to recycling hot sauce packets after eating out.
“We then turn those into plastic granules and then manufacturers take those to make them into different products — everything from park benches to Frisbees and many things in between,” Szaky said.
This all seems pretty straightforward, right? So you might be wondering: Why haven’t we seen a widescale effort to curb this sauce-packet problem?
Well, that’s where it gets a bit more complicated.
“The big challenge and why we haven't seen a breakthrough come out onto the scene yet is because the biggest issue for recyclers with sauce packets is that they're small in size. Generally, municipal recyclers, the folks who manage our blue bins, want objects that are large, typically greater than two by two by two inches. That's quite a large object when you think about it in the context of a a sauce packet,” Szaky said. “Beyond looking at material types…shifting to re-use and reusability, I think, is a good next step in that direction because then we can design out of the need of recycling altogether.”
This practice of “reduce by re-use” is also a step TerraCycle is working on with fast food chains like Burger King and McDonalds.
“We are working with them through our Loop ecosystem so that when you go and buy your sandwich or soda or coffee, you are given the choice to now get those products in fully reusable packaging. You pay a deposit when you access that package, and then when you're done, you can drop it back off at any participating retailer,” Szaky said. “We give you your deposit back in full and then take it, clean it, and then it just gets refilled and sold to the next consumer. So it never becomes waste; it just gets cleaned and reused.”
When we talk about these fast food eco-issues, plastic is often the top crusade – but that’s not the only problem.
In fact, it goes much deeper than that, said NBCLX storyteller Chase Cain, who specializes in reporting on our environment.
"The bigger impact they're having [on the environment] is around transportation – shipping all of this food across the country, people waiting in line outside of restaurants, sitting in their car with the car idling – and then also beef. Beef has an outsized impact on the planet. It's producing a ton of carbon, as well as a ton of methane emissions, which is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” Cain said.
“Beef and dairy production accounts for about fifteen percent of all greenhouse gas emissions around the world. I mean, that's a significant amount.”
Szaky agrees that changing our ordering habits is even more important than packet recycling.
“The biggest change one can make is when they go to Burger King, buy the Impossible Whopper and avoid the beef. That is the biggest effect you can change on climate change. And it's really encouraging now to see these fast food restaurants embrace vegetarian and vegan options, but I'd love more choices than one sandwich on the entire menu,” Szaky said.
“If we start ordering differently, they will adapt because the consumer is the king or the queen, and it's so important that we also understand that we have that role to play, because in the end, we're voting for the future we want with what we buy and what we don't buy,” Szaky said.
“And that goes all the way to how we order and what we ask to be put in the bag and what we ask to be not put in the bag.”