Illustration by Benoit Tardif
When it comes to damaging our planet, the fast-food industry has much to answer for. The attractions of cheap burgers and drive-thru coffee are all too often sullied by allegations of poor working conditions, animal cruelty and the cost to the environment of mountains of paper, foam and polystyrene waste.
So McDonald’s deserves a round of applause for its recent pledge to use renewable, recyclable or certified materials for all packaging by 2025, and to put recycling bins in all 37,000 Golden Arch restaurants around the world.
“Our customers have told us that packaging waste is the top environmental issue they would like us to address,” said Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s chief supply chain and sustainability officer. “Our ambition is to make changes our customers want and to use less packaging, sourced responsibly and designed to be taken care of after use.”
The fast-food giant, based in suburban Chicago, has pledged to work with leading industry experts, local governments and environmental groups to improve packaging and recycling practices. Together, it said, “they will work to drive smarter packaging designs, implement new recycling programs, establish new measurement programs and educate restaurant crew and customers.”
McDonald’s previously set a goal of sourcing all fibre-based packaging from recycled or certified sources with no lasting damage to forests by 2020.
Tom Murray, vice-president at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an email that the latest moves are noteworthy not only because the 100 per cent recycling goal “closes the loop” at the end of the useful life of packaging materials but, equally important, because McDonald’s is addressing the design and nature of those materials even before they are used.
The company’s global reach, including its vast supply chain, makes it a potentially powerful agent of change. As Murray sees it, “when McDonald’s asks for a change, their suppliers deliver, creating a ripple effect across the entire supply chain.”
He added that “sustainability leadership means that companies need to set ambitious goals that extend far beyond their own walls, addressing their supply chain and the entire impact of their products and packaging. These goals do that by committing to engage on issues beyond McDonald’s direct control – like consumer behaviour and municipal infrastructure.
“Any time a company ups the ante on sustainability leadership and reports progress against its goals, it creates competitive pressure and an incentive for others to step up. That’s a good thing!”
The U.S. Energy Department was not amused last year when one of its photographers leaked a picture to the media showing Energy Secretary Rick Perry in a warm hug with Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, the U.S.’s biggest privately-owned coal producer.
The department placed the photographer, Simon Edelman, on administrative leave and seized personal items in his office, the Washington Post reported.
Edelman is now seeking whistle-blower protection on the grounds that there was “something improper” about the close similarity between Perry’s proposals to prop up coal and nuclear plants, and Murray’s own preferences, contained in a confidential memo that he submitted to the new administration last March.
A New York Times article about Murray’s 16 proposals carried the headline: “How a coal baron’s wish list became President Trump’s to-do list.”
The list included cutting the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency by at least half, scaling back the Labor Department’s oversight of mine safety and eliminating numerous restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
The Times reported in January that “the White House and federal agencies have completed or are on track to fulfil most of the 16 detailed requests.” The cozy relationship was underscored when the White House nominated a Murray Energy lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, to the No. 2 job at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Like Trump, Murray has denounced climate change as a hoax. He told The Economist in January that it has been perpetrated by “developing countries of the world to get American dollars … [by] radical environmentalists … liberal elitists [and] Hollywood characters. I don’t refer to them as ‘people.’”
While Murray Energy’s lobbying may sway Trump, it will likely do little, if anything, to reverse the coal industry’s declining fortunes. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that coal’s contribution to U.S. power generation slipped to 28.2 per cent in October 2017, from 31.7 per cent a year earlier and more than 50 per cent at the start of the millennium.
Utilities have announced plans to either retire or convert 163 of the U.S.’s remaining 706 coal-fired power units, amounting to 18 per cent of coal-fired capacity, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy organization. The group estimates that coal-fired electricity capacity could shrink by more than a third over the next 15 years.
Murray, 78, told The Economist in January that if coal use falls below the current 30 per cent mark, “the lights will go out and Grandma will freeze in the dark.”