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McDonald's Polystyrene Coffee Cup


Company Agrees to Replace Paper for Polystyrene Cups at All U.S. Restaurants

After nearly three years of engagement with As You Sow, McDonald's agreed on September 24, 2013 to replace its polystyrene foam hot beverage cups with paper-based cups at all 14,000 U.S. restaurants.

As You Sow´s 2011 shareholder proposal asked McDonald´s to consider stronger environmental policies for its beverage containers, such as setting recycled content and post-consumer cup recovery goals. 29.3% of their investors supported the resolution, an excellent level of support for a first-year resolution. Following that remarkably high investor support and continued dialogue with As You Sow, the company unveiled a new pilot program in March 2012 replacing foam with paper cups at 2,000 of its U.S. stores. The company tested double-walled fiber hot cups at 15% of their stores, primarily on the West Coast, for consumer acceptance, operation impact, and overall importance.

We withdrew our 2012 resolution due to this concrete step towards phasing out of styrene foam-based cups and other planned company actions. The company has confirmed that the pilots were successful and that it will phase out foam cups at all locations in the coming months. We are pleased that the company decided to make the switch to paper cups permanent and expand it to all of its restaurants.

Paper cups also use significant energy and chemicals in their production, but do not persist in the environment for hundreds of years, as foam does, and are becoming more readily recyclable.

While this is a great first step, there is more work to do for the company to have a comprehensive packaging recycling policy. The company's competitor Starbucks uses 10% recycled paper fiber in its paper hot beverage cups. It has committed to recycle all post-consumer paper and plastic cups discarded in company-owned stores by 2015. It offers a discount for customers who bring reusable beverage containers into stores. We would like McDonald's to match Starbucks leadership in moving towards more environmentally responsible cups by developing recycling systems for post-consumer in-house beverage containers and using high levels of recycled content.


McDonald's Corp., the world's largest fast food franchise, has taken some good steps to make its food and beverage packaging more environmentally friendly. It is one of the largest purchasers of recycled paper, used in food containers, bags and napkins. Environmental Defense Fund worked with the company to phase out polystyrene foam-based clamshell food containers in the 1990s. However, the company continued to use billions of polystyrene-based beverage cups. 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. 46 cities and counties in California have banned or restricted the use of polystyrene food packaging.

The production of styrene, a component of polystyrene, 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 it 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.

Read more about our work on Consumer Packaging >>



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