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As You Sow Urges Global Brands to Nix Polystyrene Foam Packaging

Image Credit: David Gilford

Environmental and corporate social responsibility non-profit As You Sow has called upon four major US companies — Amazon, McDonald’s, Target and Walmart — to ditch polystyrene foam packaging from their operations. And they’re not the only ones: A new report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, endorsed by leaders of 15 global brands, has also called for globally replacing polystyrene.

Released in mid-January, The New Plastics Economy — Catalysing Action recommends replacing polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVS) as packaging materials. The report was endorsed by brands including Coca-Cola, Danone, Dow Chemical, L’Oreal, Marks & Spencer, Mars, PepsiCo, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, and also calls for a global protocol to reduce the number of plastics in use to those that are least toxic and more recyclable.

Polystyrene foam used for coffee cups, takeout containers and packing materials is rarely recycled. As a result, is often swept into waterways and has become one of the top items found in ocean beach cleanups. Foam packaging materials break down into small indigestible pellets which animals mistake for food. The consumption of these pellets is often lethal birds, turtles and whales. What’s more, styrene, which is used in the production of PS, has been designated as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

This year, As You Sow filed a shareholder proposal with McDonald’s Corp., which successfully phased out foam beverage cups in the United States. However, the company continues to use PS coffee cups in foreign markets. Dunkin’ Brands has also committed to phase out foam cups, but has not yet done so.

“We are pleased to have been a catalyst for McDonald’s to phase out use of foam cups in the U.S. in 2013. Now it needs to finish the job,” said Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President of As You Sow.

Resolutions were also filed with Amazon and Target, and the group is currently in talks with Walmart, which use PS foam as packing material in their e-commerce operations. The proposals urge the companies to assess the environmental impacts of continued use and to develop a timeline for phase out. Texts of the proposals can be found here.

“Having the leaders of more than a dozen global brands call for replacement of polystyrene sends out a powerful message to industry to redesign consumer packaging materials to be less toxic and more recyclable,” said MacKerron.

Companies such as Ikea and Dell have already begun to phase out use of foam packing in their e-commerce operations. In announcing its commitment to phase out EPS last year, Peter Larsson, Packaging Sustainability leader at Ikea stated, “Why should we fill the air in our flat packs with something that is more dangerous than the air itself?”

The Ellen MacArthur report says replacement pf PVC, EPS and PS would enhance recycling economics and reduce their potential negative impact as substances of concern. The report notes that EPS is often used for takeout food packaging, but is rarely recycled and becomes heavily contaminated with waste food, reducing its recycling potential. Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Barbados, France, Guyana, Haiti, Rwanda, Taiwan and states in India and Malaysia have enacted bans on foam packaging. More than 100 US cities or counties have also put foam packaging bans or restrictions into place.


Libby MacCarthy is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Maine and France. She is a former urban planner specializing in sustainable cities, and an urban farming and film photography enthusiast. She holds a BA in Environment, Society and… [Read more about Libby MacCarthy]