10 October 2019

Why Extinction Rebellion should eat at McDonald’s

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This week Extinction Rebellion protesters have returned to the streets of London demanding faster action to tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions. More than 600 people have been arrested for blockading streets around Whitehall, with the figure likely to increase.

One of the more viral bits of social media associated with their presence in Westminster was a photo by columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer. She mocked protesters ordering their lunch at a nearby McDonald’s, delighting in their apparent hypocrisy. But in fact, rather than being a climate villain, McDonald’s is probably one of the best places for hungry XR protesters to fill up, thanks in part to the wonders of its supply chain efficiencies.

It’s worth noting that Extinction Rebellion don’t actually make any demands about what food people eat, or any other behaviour for that matter. Despite their image, their position is surprisingly non-preachy and they have a rule about avoiding a culture of blaming or shaming individuals. They rightly recognise we live in a world surrounded by embedded carbon emissions so it’s almost impossible to live without contact with them.

Funnily enough, McDonald’s is another organisation that suffers from public misconceptions. It’s true that beef is the worst meat when it comes to climate emissions, partly due to the levels of methane produced by cattle. But chicken is much better and there is plenty on the McDonald’s menu that doesn’t include meat at all. Tom Forth of the Open Data Institute in Leeds pointed out that a McDonald’s spicy veg wrap, fries and iced latte is probably one of the most energy efficient, low emission, hot meals you can buy.

This is partly driven by McDonald’s highly efficient supply chain, which has regularly topped Gartner’s Supply Chain Top 25 ranking over the past decade before it was promoted to its ‘Masters’ category of high achievers. The pressure to turn a profit on low margin items like burgers, across 37,000 restaurants in more than a hundred countries, means resource waste has to be kept to an absolute minimum, whether that’s ingredients, packaging or energy.

For example, McDonald’s doesn’t just throw away the oil used to make your spicy veg wrap. It’s entire UK delivery fleet runs on biodiesel with almost half of it coming from used cooking oil. This biodiesel is made at a plant powered in part by McDonald’s food waste. Using this biodiesel equates to 6,900 fewer tonnes of CO2 compared to low sulphur diesel.

Likewise, smart management of deliveries means fewer miles driven. The same trucks that deliver its food and packaging takes away the used oil, cardboard and kitchen food waste. Also, rather than send general waste to landfill, nearly all of it goes to waste-to-energy incinerators which reduce the need for fossil fuels. The company has promised to send zero waste to landfill by next year.

Almost all McDonald’s locations in the UK are powered entirely by renewable energy, thanks to power purchase agreements with solar and wind farms. It has also rolled out LED lighting, energy efficient kitchen equipment and specialised staff training, reducing unnecessary energy consumption which all helps boost the profit margin. Between 2014 and 2017 McDonald’s cut the energy consumption at company-owned restaurants across the world by 50%, from 2,983 gigawatt hours to 1,420.

Last year McDonald’s was also the first global restaurant company to set an emissions reduction target in line with what the scientific consensus says is needed to hold global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. In 2015, while Donald Trump was talking about withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, McDonald’s was committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 36% by 2030. It also committed to work across its supply chain to reduce emissions intensity per tonne of food and packaging by 31% over the same time frame.

There remain questions linking Amazonian deforestation with McDonald’s animal feed and any company so reliant on beef will have to work hard to ensure long-term sustainability. But changing eating habits will likely help with that as people are choosing healthier, less meat-heavy diets.

Despite misplaced fears about the UK’s 2050 net zero target requiring mass veganism, the Committee on Climate Change says the UK will only need to reduce beef, lamb and dairy intake by 20% (so long as other measures are in place), and that can be replaced with pork, chicken or fish.

So rather than admonishing people for going to McDonald’s, we should be celebrating the fact that today’s environmental campaigners are happy to frequent the golden arches. And maybe other parts of the economy can learn from McDonald’s’ world-leading supply chain management and see the best of the private sector as part of the solution to climate change, rather than just the problem.

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Joe Ware is a journalist and writer working in the field of international development