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Published August 8, 2008 09:24 AM

McDonald's and Greenwashing

McDonald’s, the world-famous fast-food chain best known for its golden arches and Big Macs, bills itself as a leader “in environmental conservation.” A few weeks ago I walked into a McDonald’s restaurant for the first time in a year and ordered the new sweet tea drink. To my surprise the drink comes in a styrofoam cup.

Styrofoam is also known as polystyrene, which is made from styrene. According to the Environmental Justice Network, styrene is “known to indiscriminately attack tissue and the nervous system” and is absorbed through the skin, lungs and intestines.


Polystyrene is not recycled in most U.S. cities, and takes 900 years to break down in a landfill. Petroleum, the substance that fuels our life, is used in the process to make polystyrene products.

An article posted on the Sustainable is Good blog asks an important question about McDonald’s choice to use Styrofoam cups for its sweet tea drink:

“While most disposable fast food cups including those made of paper are not easily recyclable, McDonalds choice of a styrofoam cup for a new product promotion is significant. Does the company consider styrofoam a better option than paper?”

McLibel trial

In the 1990s two London Greenpeace activists were sued by McDonald’s for their anti-McDonald’s campaign. The case was dubbed the McLibel Trial. Environmental reporter John Vidal wrote a book about the trial called McLibel Trial. In the book he cites an American environmental specialists testimony about the “problems associated with styrofoam,” which include “toxic wastes, damage to the ozone layer and smog pollution, the leaching of styrene from the packing into the foods packaged in the foam….and the serious disposal problems.”

Vidal also cited testimony from another defense witness, Dr. Erik Millstone. Millstone “testified that the International Agency for the Research on Cancer had classified styrene oxide as probably carcinogenic to humans.” Interestingly, McDonald’s toxicology expert agreed that “styrene can migrate from polystyrene packaging into food.”

McToxics campaign

During the late 1980s in the U.S. a Vermont environmental group began a campaign to get McDonald’s to stop selling its food in styrofoam packages. A nationwide picket of McDonald’s restaurants occurred as a result of the Vermont group’s campaign. McDonald’s launched its own campaign where it made claims such as “foam packaging is good for landfill, it aerates the soil.” In November 1990 McDonald’s announced it would begin to phase out the majority of its styrofoam packaging.

Dialogue with McDonald’s

On McDonald’s Corporate Responsibilty blog someone commented about the use of styrofoam cups for sweet tea. The person asked, “What about all of the styrofoam you use? That is totally not recyclable. What are you doing about these things?” The person’s questions received the following response:

We continue to study the environmental impacts of our packaging decisions, from the materials we use (including sourcing of raw materials and options for recycled materials), to the design of our packaging, to the manner it is disposed. We have tools developed by experts that help us determine the environmental impacts of all these aspects.

Unfortunately, recycling in the food service industry is very difficult due to the presence of food remains. But we are making progress on the other areas I mentioned above - sourcing better raw materials, reducing packaging weight, and utilizing recycled content when we can.

Cups present special challenges, whether they are plastic or paper (by the way, there really is no such thing as a 100% paper cup, since most cups have some sort of coating, usually a poly or wax coating), but nonetheless we are always studying alternatives.

I became irate after reading the response to the concerned customer, and posted my own comment:

Is it environmentally sustainable to serve sweet tea in a cup made of polystyrene? Most areas in the U.S. do not have facilities to recycle polystyrene. Polystyrene takes 900 years to break down in a landfill. Paper cups generally end up in landfills, but at least they are biodegradable.

I received the following response to my comment:

We do consider lifecycle impacts, including the eventual disposal impacts, in our packaging analysis. When it comes to packaging ending up in a landfill, no form of packaging is truly biodegradable, since modern landfills are designed to limit degredation. In addition to lifecycle impacts, we also consider other factors like the total weight of the product which lessens the impact due to shipment. We continue to look at ways to balance the environment with the functional needs of our customers, recycling infrastructure, and supply availability.

According to the University of British Columbia, it only takes paper products two to five months to break down in a landfill. However, as the response to the McDonald’s customer’s questions pointed out, fast food paper cups are coated with either wax or polyethylene, and can take a year or more to break down.

The polystyrene-based cups that sweet tea is served in take 900 years to break down. What is better: a few months or almost a millennium? The total weight of polystyrene has no bearing on its impact to the environment. Very little polystyrene products are recycled. If McDonald’s truly considered lifestyle impacts it would use only paper cups.

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