Q. The other day, after draining a cup of deli coffee, I noticed a message printed on the side saying that it was made from recycled fibers of some kind, corn, I think. The experience left me wondering: What (if anything) has the fast-food industry been doing to make the zillion tons of “disposable” waste they generate slightly more sustainable? —Taryn, Arizona

A. Fast-food chains have indeed been hopping on the green train. This is largely because being green is trendy right now, so public displays of greenness attract more customers, which in turn brings in more business. But who cares if the motive is profit if it results in less waste? Organizations have been springing up worldwide — such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in Charlottesville, Va., and the Sustainable Packaging Alliance in Melbourne, Australia — to share strategies and technologies within the food and retail industries.

“As much as people are cynical about the fast-food industry, there is a push now for sustainabililty” among industry insiders, says Rob Wallace, vice president of communications at Keep America Beautiful, a national nonprofit devoted to litter prevention and to “source reduction” (decreasing and greening the stuff that eventually turns into litter). “This push for sustainability is good for public relations,” Wallace chuckles. “But that’s fine. It’s an emerging trend that we at KAB are glad to be seeing a lot more of.”

Among the businesses responding to this trend is the national Mexican-takeout chain Chipotle, whose motto is “Food With Integrity” (this month it became the first national company to serve exclusively naturally raised chicken). Chipotle’s napkins are made from 90 percent post-consumer recycled material, its bags are composed of approximately 35 percent post-consumer recycled material, and its basket liners are made of unbleached paper.

The corn-based cup you saw might have been a Smart Cup, which its manufacturers describe as being “made with an inner lining using a plastic biopolymer derived from corn. Once the cup is formed, using fibers grown and harvested according to guidelines from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the bio-plastic resin is applied to the inside of the cup.... Theoretically, a petroleum-based cup liner will stay intact for eternity after being discarded. This new corn-based liner will break down under the proper conditions.... Nearly 70 percent of the energy used to produce the paperboard for this cup is from renewable energy resources.”

Groups such as SPA and SPC draw inspiration from Cradle to Cradle, a 2002 manifesto by designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart calling for what they term “a new Industrial Revolution,” in which industries spearhead big innovations with environmental principles in mind. This way, the authors say, everyone benefits.

Teaching by example, the book is printed on synthetic “paper” made from plastic resins and inorganic fillers, we learn from its publisher, North Point Press, which is “designed to look and feel like top-quality paper while also being waterproof and rugged. And the book can be easily recycled in localities with systems to collect polypropylene, like that in yogurt containers. This ‘treeless’ book points the way toward the day when synthetic books, like many other products, can be used, recycled, and used again.”

Read it while eating your next burrito.

Story by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.

Greening fast food
What has the fast food industry been doing to become more eco-friendly?