The Guilfordian

McDonald’s moves away from foam packaging

McDonald’s has committed to taking a step towards more environmentally sustainable practices. To do this, the fast food giant is eliminating foam from their American restaurants and supply chain by the end of 2018.

Foam, also known as polystyrene, is a harmful substance that does not biodegrade. Polystyrene has been part of the company’s product packaging for decades. The decision to eliminate the material comes after company shareholder and advocacy group As You Sow sponsored an initiative to push McDonald’s to examine their use of harmful products.

“We do appreciate what McDonald’s is doing,” said As You Sow Senior Vice President Conrad MacKerron. “It’s taken a long time, but better late than never.”

According to The Chicago Tribune, the company will use fiber-based drink containers that are more ecologically friendly than foam. This move is providing encouragement for environmental activists and supporters who are concerned about the use of the harmful material.

Online magazine Recycling Today noted the harmful effects of using polystyrene. In addition to being nearly unrecyclable, foam frequently ends up as litter on beaches or in oceans where marine mammals ingest it.

The magazine also reported that foam’s chemicals can create waterborne toxins that harm aquatic animals, as well as people using the water that foam is dumped in. These findings have motivated groups like As You Sow to ask for change.

As You Sow had success encouraging McDonald’s to stop using foam in 2012 when the company eliminated foam cups for hot drinks in 2012.

Despite the forward movement towards sustainable practices, business experts think there could be some customers who lack interest in the new practices.

“I don’t think people care about what kind of cup they get their drink in,” said Business Professor and Department Chair Daryl Samsell. “They are going to go there because of the low price.”

Some in the environmental community are also cautious about the development.

“I’m glad McDonald’s is choosing more environmentally responsible products, but the fast food industry in general is highly unsustainable,” said Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Tom Guthrie. “Although the scale of McDonald’s operations will make the environmental impact of this change significant, changing cups may be an example of green washing, a relatively superficial change that pacifies environmentalists while basically maintaining the status quo.”

This concern is held by many, considering that McDonald’s still uses foam packaging in overseas markets such as Hong Kong and the Philippines. Others, however, are encouraged.

“This sends an important message to other quick service food companies who may still be using foam. We also hope McDonald’s will next turn its attention to other single-use items like plastic straws and cup lids that pose hazards to marine animals and add to the tsunami of plastic waste afflicting world oceans,” said MacKerron.

MacKerron’s hope is not far-fetched. According to Recycling Today, nine countries and over 100 American cities have committed to ecological responsibility by banning or limiting use of foam products.

Major companies such as Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, L’Oreal, Pepsi-Co, Proctor and Gamble and others have joined the efforts to permanently eliminate foam from the American and international landscapes.

“I think these practices are successful because in the long term, CSR (corporate social responsibility) can help the company to get positive reactions from consumers, investors, employees, etc.,” said Assistant Professor of Business Wenling Wang. “It will be beneficial not only for the environment, but also for the company.”

Supporters hope that McDonald’s choice to be more sustainable will be beneficial for both customers and the environment.

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