As of 2003, plastic will be on the menu at MacDonald’s restaurants across the USA. Not, as some cynics would have it, on the plate – but at the checkout.

And where McDonald’s leads, Burger King and others are sure to follow. In a sign of changing times and flagging sales, fast-fooderies, until now a bastion of opposition to credit and debit cards, will welcome plastic in all its varieties. Which is good news for cholesterol addicts – and for the burger barons.

According to Californian restaurant market research specialist Sandelman & Associates, the average fast-food consumer eats 16.4 times a month at such emporia; so-called heavy users 27.5 times a month. That adds up to frequent-flyer points aplenty for cardholders and enhanced profits for the card companies.

But card acceptance isn’t just about consumer appeal: lines will also get shorter thanks to powerful processors and faster networks which make plastic faster to process than cash.

According to McDonald's vp of US information technology Jim Sappington, a customer will be able to place an order at a counter or drive-through, swipe his or her credit card, and get an approval in under five seconds – no signature necessary. Cash, by contrast, takes eight to ten seconds.

But what’s three to five seconds to the average customer? Forget the customer - every second equals profit to the burger chains, enabling them to serve more customers in the same time. McDonald’s, for example, aims to get customers in and out, complete with grease fix, within ninety seconds.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff