Phase out of Polystyrene Foam Containers Globally
McDonald’s Corp. took an important environmental step forward by phasing out harmful polystyrene (PS) foam packaging for hot beverage cups in the U.S. following engagement with As You Sow in 2011 and 2012 (see below), but continues its use in overseas markets where plastic pollution migration into waterways is highest, including Hong Kong and parts of the Philippines.
Polystyrene foam beverage cups and food service containers are major contributors to ocean gyre pollution, which has been found to be harmful to fish and birds. Foam is rarely recycled and safer alternatives are readily available.
Here are some of the key concerns posed by PS and PS foam:
- Foam packaging materials break down into small indigestible pellets which marine animals mistake for food. Ingestion can result in malnutrition, intestinal blockage, buildup of toxics, and death as demonstrated in birds, turtles, and whales.
- Foam may pose a higher risk to marine animals than other plastics due to its hazardous constituent chemicals and research showing it can accumulate high concentrations of water borne toxins in a short time frame.
- Polystyrene has caused decreased reproduction in laboratory populations of oysters and fish.
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that styrene, used in the production of polystyrene, is a possible human carcinogen.
Plastic packaging is a prime component of ocean gyre pollution, which threatens marine animals and potentially, human health. Recent studies estimate that 8 million tons of plastics are dumped in oceans annually and project that oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight by 2050. This has led nine countries and more than 100 U.S. cities or counties to ban foam packaging. Find more information about our work on ocean plastics and plastic pollution here.
Leaders of 15 major companies including Coca-Cola, L’Oreal, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble called for phase out of use of polystyrene for packaging purposes in a report titled The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action, released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in January 2017. An assessment of the significance of this action by Conrad MacKerron, As You Sow Senior Vice President in Greenbiz can be found here, and a related blog piece here.
In 2016 and 2017, As You Sow raised the issue of continued use of polystyrene foam cups in overseas markets with McDonald’s management. When the company declined to take initial steps towards a foam phase out in those markets, As You Sow filed a proposal with McDonald’s asking it to assess the environmental impacts of continued use of foam beverage cups, and assessing the potential for increased risk of adverse health effects to marine animals and humans. The supporting statement asks for an assessment of the reputational, financial and operational risks associated with continuing to use foam cups and a timeline to phase out their use.
The proposal received the support of nearly one third of all shares voted at the McDonald’s May 24 shareholder meeting – 32.3%, which represents shares worth nearly $26 billion!
A detailed memo with additional background on the issue discussing why investors should support this important proposal can be found here.
CONSUMER PACKAGING 2012
As You Sow re-filed the 2011 proposal. This led to improved engagement with the company and a commitment to a pilot test of paper cups replacing polystyrene foam cups at 1500 U.S. West Coast restaurants, and development of a comprehensive company Waste program including new executive positions to deal with post-consumer packaging issues.
The company confirmed to As You Sow in 2016 that its transition out of foam cups for hot beverages was complete. However, it noted that it continues sporadic use of polystyrene foam for cold beverage cups (iced tea) and food trays in some regional U.S. markets.
CONSUMER PACKAGING 2011
As You Sow filed a proposal asking the company to phase out use of polystyrene foam hot beverage cups in its U.S. locations. The proposal received the support of 29.3% of shares voted, a very strong vote result.
 Jambeck et al, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science 13 February 2015 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768, and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, January 2016, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics