McDonalds in Australia: 50 years of fast food, slow litter

A grass & dirt area, with Vincent, Mark Kenny's Schnauzer dog in the foreground with a stick. Behind Vincent, is a large amount of litter - McDonalds food wrappers and food.
Picture by Mark Kenny.
Thursday 30 September 2021

By Mark Kenny

This article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Any breed of dog can hunt truffles a farmer from out Braidwood-way told me recently.

It depends on whether you have a “nose-up” or “nose-down dog”.

A Schnauzer favouring the “nose-down” method, Vincent would do nicely but he usually hunts a more urban quarry.

A discarded thick-shake is detectable at 20 paces in the right wind conditions. McNuggets or fries? Twice that.

So when he abruptly changed direction last Sunday morning, I knew his canine olfactory nerve was onto something.

It is a sad fact that people leave food remnants all over the place.

Several years ago, when just a puppy, Vincent picked up a scent trail on a local oval.

He began frantically turning this way and that, nose buried in the turf, until he arrived at the base of a permapine post.

It was only when I got closer that I noticed somebody had placed a chocolate-chip cookie on top of it – probably to spare their own dog at the time.

An apple core in the bushes is one thing but chewing gum, mints, chips and sultanas? These things lurk in the shortest grass and can be toxic to dogs.

A particular fancy is the semi-consumed hamburger bun – often soggy with sauce and fat.

I get why anyone with a vaguely adult palate might blanch at this cakey counterfeit but really?

With even less notice than Scott Morrison gave our French “friends”, Vincent can dive into a hedge only to be dragged out backwards, convulsively wolfing said ‘contra-bun’ like a prison escapee.

So, there we were, en route to Manuka last Sunday morning - just hours after World Clean Up Day had concluded, incidentally.

Azure sky, perfect stillness, and an almost monastic quiet – perhaps the only upside of lockdown.

Passing the old Brumbies grounds, he suddenly darted leftward, stopped-short only by his harness.

After re-locating my left shoulder, I eyed an ugly scene. A gravel carpark strewn with burger boxes, bags, soft-drink cups with plastic lids, and wrappers smeared with ersatz cheese. And an astounding number of fries.

Such blights are not unknown in this otherwise tidy precinct, and tellingly, they’re pretty much all branded by one vendor, McDonalds.

I’ve complained about this before and tagged the American franchisor on Twitter for what is demonstrably a daily function of its business model.

Doubtless, McDonalds does much good in the community, not least as a major employer of young people, a source of affordable meals, and as a provider of toilet and Wifi facilities for the marginalised.

Yet for all that good, people across the country cite similar littering scourges adjacent to McDonalds, KFC, and equivalents in their own locales.

Some readers will say singling out the Manuka outlet is unfair. But is it, really? There are 10 or so restaurants and cafes in Manuka alone, almost all of which sell coffees and other take-away items.

Yet their packaging is rarely seen in the streets nearby, and virtually never in the local parks.

Go to the top of Red Hill over the summer months, and a similar morning blight is common. Ditto the kids’ playgrounds on Captain Cook Crescent and Telopea Park.

Another common retort is that it is not McDonalds breaking the littering laws, but its customers.

Like all truisms, this is both undeniable, and a dead-end. It offers no practical answer to a chronic problem short of placing extra police and/or surveillance cameras in every park. And again, this would come at the community’s expense.

The problem remains that McDonalds’ business model relies on that disconnect with its customers’ actions once they enter the free public dining room.

In economics, this is called an externality - a cost passed to a third party without increasing the sale price for a given product.

Firearms manufacturers have never met the unconscionable socio-economic costs of their products.

Big polluters have been externalising the damage of their emissions for years. Shameless politicians have even won elections by protecting this plainly antisocial privilege.

McDonalds is currently gracing our screens with nostalgic soft-focus images of its glorious 50 year-Australianisation, it came as McDonalds and we turned it into Maccas, goes the blurb.

We’d be wiser to reject such sugary patois and look instead at the parks, lanes, and waterways. Here, what stands out is the company’s 50-year indifference to the environment.

Responding to me on Twitter, @bradjohnd proffered the idea of McDonalds using “number plate recognition in drive throughs and print it on packaging. Not very hard to do.”

Perhaps, but before going all Orwellian, why not ask the company to own its byproducts through the full cycle? Or get its customers to tick a McDonalds Environment Pact promising to ‘place the waste in the trash’.

But it won’t happen by itself. At the moment, there’s no balance sheet cost, and little in the way of community push-back.

A price signal would soon see it reduce its packaging and could even prompt other solutions.

Solutions which would be in everyone’s interests, including our “nose-down” dogs.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  30 September 2021/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager