McDonald’s to Pilot Elimination of Styrofoam Cups

Senior Program Director Conrad MacKerron tries the new McDonald's paper coffee cup.

Senior Program Director Conrad MacKerron tries the new McDonald’s paper coffee cup.

Although fast-food giant McDonald’s stopped using the controversial foam for its food packaging decades ago, it took a shareholder resolution filed by As You Sow to spur them to pilot a phase-out of polystyrene coffee cups.

The 2011 shareholder resolution asked the company to re-evaluate the use of foam cups and to develop a recycling policy similar to Starbucks’. The proposal was supported by nearly 30% of shareholders, an above average level for an environmental proposal and the highest vote to date for any As You Sow proposal on recycling.

Following this strong showing of investor concern, the company responded by launching a pilot program that replaces polystyrene with a double-walled paper cup at approximately 2,000 (15%) of its U.S. restaurants.

Polystyrene is controversial from several health and environmental angles. Styrene is a known carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the Environmental Protection Agency lists polystyrene cup recycling as “negligible.” As it is petroleum-based, polystyrene persists for hundreds of years after use.

It is also a significant factor in plastic ocean pollution. Carried through storm drains to the ocean, foam containers break down into small indigestible pellets which animals perceive as food, resulting in the death of birds and fish.

Faced with these concerns, McDonald’s stopped using foam-based “clamshell” food containers in 1990 and eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging, saving an estimated $6 million per year.

The Consumer Packaging initiative is part of the Waste program, which encourages companies that produce packaging to take responsibility by implementing extended producer responsibility policies. Building on our successful work with Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Nestlé Waters, and PepsiCo, we are pressing consumer packaging and electronics companies to use raw materials more efficiently to ultimately reduce waste.