McDonald’s Corporation has taken many steps to green it’s packaging in recent years. The largest food franchise in the world, it is also one of the largest purchasers of recycled paper products according to the environmental advocacy group As You Sow. McDonald’s uses recycled paper to produce its bags, napkins and food containers.
According to the company it uses an eco-filter tool to guide packaging choices. This tool is designed to influence decisions based on minimizing weight, maximizing use of recycled materials, employing a purchasing preference for renewable and sustainably managed feedstock, minimizing the use of harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process, decreasing GHG emissions and maximizing recycling options. It is curious then that such a tool allows for the selection of polystyrene, a notoriously environmentally un-friendly material that is difficult to recycle.
Despite the environmental impacts of polystyrene, its chemical properties as an insulator make it an ideal choice for hot beverages. It is also the most economically viable choice, costing far less than paper alternatives.
In 2011 As You Sow authored a shareholder proposal requesting that McDonald’s commit to more stringent environmental policies for it’s beverage containers. The proposal received strong support from the company’s investors. 29.3% of them supported the resolution.
In response, McDonald’s is launching a pilot program in 2,000 U.S. Stores this month to replace polystyrene cups with double-layer paper fiber cups. Most of the pilot locations are on the West Coast, where environmental initiatives are already well received by the populace. The pilot program will test the performance of the paper cups, as well as customer acceptance and operational impact.
As reported in our February post, Why aren’t fast food restaurants recycling?, Starbucks has committed to developing a fully recyclable coffee cup and to serving beverages exclusively in recyclable or reuseable mugs by 2015. They also offer a discount to customers who bring in reuseable cups. As You Sow is urging McDonald’s to follow suit.
Paper cups aren’t without their detractors either. There is a significant amount of energy expended in their production, and to be suitable for hot beverages they must be coated with some type of plastic resin which means significant chemical use. These coatings also have been a problem when it comes to recycling, but those options are expanding, and the paper fiber is biodegradeable and won’t hang around in a landfill for thousands of years.
This is a definite step in the right direction. Hopefully McDonalds will expand the program beyond the first 2,000 stores and make paper cups available to all of its patrons. They should also be working on placing recycling bins in their stores so that the recyclable materials they already use don’t make their way to the landfill for lack of a place to deposit them.
To view As You Sow’s 2011 shareholder proposal, click here.