Rarely recycled, expanded polystyrene foam used in beverage cups and takeout containers is a frequent component of beach litter, breaking down into indigestible pellets, which marine animals mistake for food, resulting in deaths of marine animals.
McDonald’s phased out foam cups for hot beverages in the United States after engagement with As You Sow in 2012, but continued to use them in foreign markets like Hong Kong and the Philippines. It also continued to use foam for cold beverages and food trays in some U.S. markets.
McDonald’s has posted a statement on its corporate website stating that it plans to eliminate foam packaging from its global system by the end of 2018. The company said “the environmental impact of our packaging is a top priority” and that eliminating foam is an important step “that will continue to raise the bar for our system and our industry.”
Polystyrene has been widely used for single-use containers across the world for decades, but in recent years its negative environmental and health profile have led major companies to drop it. Its hazardous constituent chemicals have been shown to accumulate water borne toxins in a short time frame, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that styrene, used in the production of polystyrene, is a possible human carcinogen.
“We congratulate McDonald’s management for removing the last vestiges of polystyrene foam from its global packaging stream,” said Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President at As You Sow, who specializes in waste and recycling issues. “This sends an important message to other quick service food companies who may still be using foam. We also hope McDonald’s will next turn its attention to other single use items like plastic straws and cup lids that pose hazards to marine animals and add to the tsunami of plastic waste afflicting world oceans.”
Nine countries and more than 100 U.S. cities or counties have banned or restricted foam packaging. 15 major brands including Coca-Cola Co, Danone, Dow Chemical, L’Oreal, Marks & Spencer, Mars, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever recommended replacement of polystyrene foam as a packaging material in a report released in 2017 by the New Plastics Economy Project of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.