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McDonald’s To Pilot Replacement for Foam Cups

image credit: waferboard via flickr

McDonald’s plans to test a new hot cup in 2,000 of its U.S. stores that could replace the polystyrene foam cups currenty in use at all locations.

The fast food chain will pilot double-walled fiber cups at 15 percent of its stores, primarily on the West Coast, according to shareholder advocacy group As You Sow.

In 2011, As You Sow introduced a shareholder proposal asking McDonald’s to consider stronger environmental policies for its beverage containers, such as setting recycled content and post-consumer cup recovery goals.

McDonald’s has since told the group it will test the new cup design for consumer acceptance, operation impact, and overall importance. As a result, As You Sow says it has withdrawn the resolution for the 2012 proxy season.

Polystyrene is not widely recycled and has become pervasive in the marine environment, carried through storm drains to the ocean. It has been cited as among the most common debris found on beaches. Polystyrene breaks down into small indigestible pellets, which animals perceive as food, resulting in the death of birds and marine mammals.

The production of styrene, used in the production of polystyrene, also carries occupational safety risks. The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that styrene is a possible human carcinogen. In 2009, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment proposed that styrene be listed as a known human carcinogen. Several epidemiologic studies suggest an association between occupational styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma.

McDonald's worked with the Environmental Defense Fund several years ago to phase out polystyrene foam-based clamshell food containers. However, the company continues to use billions of polystyrene-based beverage cups.

“We hope the company will make the switch to paper cups permanent and expand it to all of its restaurants,” As You Sow said in a release. “Paper cups also use significant energy and chemicals in their production, but do not persist in the environment for hundreds of years and are becoming readily recyclable.”

McDonald’s competitor Starbucks uses 10% recycled paper fiber in its paper hot beverage cups, and has committed to recycle all post-consumer paper and plastic cups discarded in company-owned stores by 2015.

Bart King is a PR consultant and principal of Cleantech Communications.


From my perspective I see the

From my perspective I see the McDonalds migration to paper cups as a step in the right direction towards addressing San Francisco’s quest for zero waste. As paper cups are acceptable into the compost collection program and EPS are not. However, it is a bit of a mute point here, as San Francisco had already outlawed the use of EPS cups & EPS “to go” packaging at restaurants. Therefore Micky D’s in SF has already been using alternatives to EPS.

Ideally we will see a migration to a re-useable, durable coffee cup. Or perhaps a “Hybrid Cup”. How about an insulated coffee cozy for a very thin cup? Also consider offering an eco-discount to clients who bring their own mug. Perhaps McDonald’s could offer a branded, re-usable insulated cup, “cozy” then offer a discount or upgrade for its use. The goals of convenience and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive. It just takes some planning and imagination.

Foam is more environmentally sound than paper

Styrene foam gets an undeserved bad rap. A Life Cycle Audit commissioned by the Oregon Dept. of Environmentally Quality clearly showed EPS foam (Styrofoam) is a more sound ecological choice than food- and forest-based products.

Polystyrene is not a carcinogen. Unlike paper, it is inert with no danger of emitting methane gases or leaching chemicals at its end of life.

The problem with Polystyrene is the lack of widely available recycling opportunities. Why doesn't McDonald's put EPS recycling bins at its locations? The carbon footprint and energy expended when harvesting, processing, transporting and recycling paper cups vs. foam is massively larger than when using EPS foam. Paper costs more because it takes more energy to make, transport and use.

Conversely foam cups are about 97% air.

Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also Associate Editor of Sponsored Content for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_king [Read more about Bart King]

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