Environmental Externalities

Externalities are those things we think about when we actively choose to pay extra for biodegradable packaging or take the time to separate our trash, organics, and recyclables.

They are the mountains of waste we see when looking at a landfill, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from excessive plastic usage.

This page gives an overview of how Fast Food influences our waste system, some of the negative externalities that come along with this system, and a more sustainable path forward.

learn more about externalities skip to the sustainable path
Woman at a art gallery showing waste turned into art
Fast Food and Waste

85 Million Tacos, Please

Nearly 85 million Americans eat fast food on any given day.

That’s 85 million ¼ pound patties, 85 million sides of fries, and 85 million drinks. Of course we’re obviously making wild assumptions; this could be 85 million cups of coffee and donuts, 85 million footlongs, or 85 million tacos, but we all know nothing beats a burger and fry combo… right?

As we grow aware of the unintended consequences of our consumption, we seek more environmentally friendly alternatives.


It’s a delicate balance. Wanting to feel good about where our waste is going and not wanting our $1 menu to become a $2 menu.

But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There may be a cost of implementing a recycling program, but there is also a cost to the restaurant giving us 37 napkins to accompany our large fry.

There may be a cost to an organics program, but there is also a benefit of free compost. Compost that could be used by local farmers to make produce cheaper.

What’s the cost of a perfectly struck balance?

External Costs

Nestled between the cost of your burger and fry combo and it’s externalities are the root issues behind consumption, External Costs. These are costs avoided by a producer or consumer and instead externalized onto someone — or thing — else.

It looks like this: Internal Costs + External Costs = True Social Cost

Internal Costs would be things like the wrappers, tomato’s and bags.
External Costs would be things like taxes for street cleanup, labor for sorting and cleaning recyclables, and the healthcare bills from incineration and landfill emissions.

Imagine it costs a restaurant $1,000 to implement a recycling, organics, and waste disposal system. If they charged $1 extra per order, they would pay off this system in 1,000 orders.

External Cost -> Externality

When these costs are externalized, we see the resulting externality. That looks like this:

Internal Costs = Price at Register
↳ Externalized Cost → Externality

This $1 cost could have paid for a better waste management system. 
Instead, the dirty wrappers, leftover tomato bits and paper bag were thrown in the trash. It was all sent to our landfills or incinerated.

The burger may have looked $1 cheaper on the menu as these costs were initially footed by our environment and communities, but eventually society pays the bill in things like rising healthcare premiums (from landfill & incineration emissions and leachate) and increased food costs (from soil degradation & compost costs). *This is where the “Don’t tread on me” philosophy breaks down. Nearly everything we buy has an unpaid external cost that “treads on” someone — or thing — else.

Here are some common External Costs avoided in our agricultural system and their resulting Externalities



External Costs

• Mining Costs
• Water Costs (contaminated groundwater)
• Increased Prices (resource scarcity)



External Costs

• Healthcare Bills
• Climate Migration
• Shorter Winter Ski Season



External Costs

• Top Soil Replenishment
• Water Contamination (runoff)
• Increased Food Prices (reduced production)

If you’d like to learn more about Externalities and External Costs, check out the following link

the theory of externalities

Rethinking Consumption

As a conscious consumer, you may be on the lookout for “biodegradable”, “compostable” or “recyclable” waste bags.

But then the FTC releases a statement stating that these claims are, for the most part, marketing magic. They’re biodegradable IF you do 10 handstands while reciting the alphabet backwards. They’re compostable IF you can execute “The Floss” perfectly.

Think about it, how could a “recyclable” trash bag be recycled if it was holding a bunch of non-recyclables?

Tying It All Together

So how can someone with little money or political influence make an impact on a system run by the almighty dollar?

Let’s tie it all together.


“Biodegradable”, “compostable”, “recyclable”? It’s tough to spot the marketing magic.

What is for certain is that the massive growth and use of these terms means that our conscious consumption and “voting with our dollar” works.

Here are a few legit labels to look for.

• TerraCycle
• BPI Certification – ASTM D6400
• R2 and e-Stewards®


When it’s impossible to tell the difference between marketing magic and fluff, you’d expect the government to help out.

Here are some of the organizations holding our government accountable.

• 4ocean
• Plastic Pollution Coalition


It’s in a corporation’s best interest to avoid all the external costs they can. More money for them and more “affordable” products for us.

But as we’ve just learned, these costs don’t just disappear.

It’s also in their interest to use labels that sell product, whether that’s for the benefit of society or their bottom line.

That’s where it’s our government’s job to step in. With proper regulation, they can force producers to pay for their external costs and use proper labels.

Here are a few ways our government does that.

• Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling
• Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act


Imagine a world in which you send your spare change from your BPI certified compostable doggie poop bags to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition uses your spare change to advocate for their Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act

The government then passes the act, which shifts the financial waste management burden from you, to the producers of the waste.

The producers then find it more financially worthwhile to research & develop a sustainable doggie bag that biodegrades in landfills. They make heaps of profit and you helped and mitigate the externality of plastic pollution.

Imagine, Econus!


Live sustainably with Econus!

download Econus