tl;dr: Start looking into edible wrappers and utensils to reduce fast food trash output.
As I have said many times before, sustainability covers far more topics and issues besides climate change. A very important concern that many people aren't considering is just how much trash the average American produces. Depending on which study you are looking at, the average American produces between 4 to 5 lbs. of trash a day. That's quite a bit of trash, but pales in comparison to how much trash fast food restaurants generate. McDonald's, all by itself, generates about 6,000 lbs of packaging waste every single minute. To its credit, McDonald's has committed to make 100% of its packaging from renewable, recycled, or certified sources by 2025. Time will tell if they actually meet this goal. We only have 2 more years to wait and see if they are successful.
This post is not about criticizing McDonald's. There are 201,865 fast food restaurants in the US, and only 13,438 of them are Golden Arches. All of these restaurants are generating about 16,752,670,105 lbs. of packaging waste a year. Recycled and renewable components are wonderful, but this means that we are still generating the packaging waste, just from slightly better sources. The absolute best solution would be to just eleminate as much of this packaging waste as we can.
How we do this is quite simple, and pretty exciting. Make the wrappers, cups, boxes, and trays that the food comes in edible. Don't just stop there, make the plastic utensils that are ubiquitous with fast food edible as well. Anything involving delivering food to the customer is open game. Many Americans are unaware of this, but ideas like this are not theoretical. They are already in practice in many places around the world. KFC in the UK ran a promotion featuring an edible coffee cup in 2015 that wasn't real. The awesome thing is that now there are actual and practical edible cofee cups that are available today.
It doesn't stop at wrappers and cups that we can eat, either. Edible cutlery is a fascinating field to be following right now. We have seen the largest growth and success with edible spoons, but there is a company that is having some significant success creating edible forks. A recent review of one of the edible forks suggested that they were very hard to bite into, but the reviewer found them useful as fertilizer for their plants. Either way, the fork never made it into the trash, and that is a significant win. If there is sufficient demand, will there be a practical, scalable, edible knife coming out in the near future? I wouldn't bet against it!
It saddens me that the rest of the world has fully embraced thinking about the problem, coming up with the solution, and delivering it to the marketplace. Meanwhile, in the US, I'm watching ads about how great corn starch ethanol is. We're just way behind the curve, and the problem is that US consumers aren't learning about potential options and holding fast food providers accountable for delivering such products to their local franchises. Edible sandwich wrappers exist today. They are not science fiction. Some of the most exciting advances involve using seaweed as the base stock for many of the edible wrapper options. Seaweed is highly nutritious, and its production is the least impactful form of aquaculture. Seaweed plays the same carbon storage role as its terrestrial cousins, but seaweed grows much faster, which means that vast forests of seaweed can be some of the most beneficial carbon sinks we have in the near term future.
To generate sturdier food containers that seaweed can't be used for, we can look to some interesting cereals and grains as the flour sources for these packaging solutions. These foods rank low on GHG emissions, emitting an average of 1.08 lbs. of CO2e per every lb. of cereal or grain. Additionally, introducing grains like millet and sorghum, is important because while they might not be common in the US, they are staple grains in other parts of the world. While the top producers of millet in the world are India and China, next on the list are Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Chad. All of these nations could benefit from an increased demand in millet. Everybody wins.
"Wrapping" this up (ha ha ha), there is no reason why the US can't catch up or exceed the rest of the world in edible food packaging development. A big reason why we haven't is because the domestic food industry is largely run with the same mindset as most other industries in this country - cut costs, streamline product offerings, and try to do as little as you can and charge as much for it as possible. This attitude and culture doesn't reward innovators in this space, because most fast food restaurants think they can't afford to stray from the cheap plastic and paper options that they are used to. The reality is that the vast majority of them haven't even tried. They won't make that effort until the consuming public demands that they do. Like I said, it's great that McDonald's is going 100% renewable, but what would be even better is instead of this going to the trash:
We are putting this in the trash in its place:
There is only so much space available to us, and generating large amounts of trash seems to be a very poor choice, especially when we can prevent billions of pounds of trash from going into our landfills. We can end our lunches or dinners knowing we aren't clogging landfills with all that plastic, styrofoam, and paper. That is what I'd call a happy meal.