In 1990, McDonald’s found itself in the middle of an animated debate surrounding its food packaging. At the heart of his debate lay the famous polystyrene (Styrofoam) “clamshells” used to package McDonald’s hamburgers and other food products. Clamshell opponents argued that this was not an environmentally responsible packaging method, and that “greener” methods were available. The citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste even organized a boycott against McDonald’s with picketers in “Ronald McToxic” clown suits.
This was not the first criticism levied against the clamshell. McDonald’s had previously confronted public outcries in the late of destroying the stratospheric ozone layer. The fate of the clamshell initially was in doubt, but on August 5, 1987, McDonald’s announced that it could save the clamshell by having suppliers switch to a non-CFC production process.
Despite this change, as environmental awareness climbed between 1988 and 1990, the clamshell was reexamined by the public. Of particular concern was the alarming rate at which landfills were being filled: it was anticipated that, by 1995, available landfill space would fail to 80 percent of what was available in 1980. Incineration, once though a viable alternative, also proved problematic in light of concern for air quality and ash disposal. Other alternatives were explored. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several state governments developed a “waste management hierarchy” that placed incineration and landfill disposal as last resort alternatives. Preferred choices included reducing, reusing, and recycling – in that order.
According to a survey by packaging designers Gerstman & Meyer, 60 percent of the respondents believed that plastic packaging was the source of most of the solid waste disposal problem. Considering the amount of polystyrene the company used about 80 million pounds each year to package its Big Macs, Quarter Pounder, Egg McMuffins, breakfast pancakes, McChicken sandwiches and Chicken McNuggets – McDonald’s with 1990 sales exceeding $18 billion, became an easy target for angered environmentalists. Finally, the McDonald’s clamshell became a casualty of the growing environmental consciousness of the American public.
The irony is that consumer perception was at odds with reality. Actually, plastic accounted for only 8 percent (by weight) of total municipal solid waste, whereas paper accounted for 40 percent. Indeed, fast food containers comprised less than one half of one percent of total landfill volume. Environmentalists could have focused their attention more effectively elsewhere.
Nevertheless, at stake was the “golden” image McDonald’s had worked so hard to achieve, often through charity to child related causes. Twenty years ago, we decided we wanted an image beyond food, based on strong virtues, explained McDonald’s chief marketing officer Paul D Scharge. It makes us dependable. McDonald’s had spent millions of dollars in support of such efforts, most notably its Ronald McDonald Houses, which offer near hospital lodging to families of children hospitalized with cancer, and the affiliated Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities. In addition, McDonald sponsored the world’s Largest Concert, a 1989 worldwide sing song that aired on PBS, and the May 1990 Life Magazine special issue on children. Given McDonald’s interest in preserving its good public image, the cries against the clamshell, whether warranted or not, had to be heard and answered.
McChange at McDonald’s:
McDonald’s was reluctant to replace the clamshell unless it was absolutely necessary/. In addition to its recycling efforts, McDonald’s agreed to work with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit advocacy group, to set up a strategic alliance. A joint McDonald’s/EDF task force was set up to consider solid waste issues within the McDonald’ system more thoroughly. According to Jackie Prince, EDF staff scientists, What made the experiment bold was not just the virtually unprecedented notion of a partnership between an environmental advocacy organization and a major US corporation seen by many as a symbol of our disposable society, but also the thoroughness of the undertaking a top to bottom examination of materials improvement and waste reduction opportunities throughout the McDonald’s system and a comprehensive examination of its network of more than 600 suppliers.
The task force was charged with coming up with ‘a framework, a systematic approach, and a strong scientific basis for McDonald’s solid waste decisions. The task force arrived at a program of 42 initiatives to reduce McDonald’s waste and soften the impact of some practices. One result, for example was that McDonald’s switched to using recycled paper bags. Another was that, finally, the clamshell was abandoned. It had served as a useful packaging device, both for aesthetic and functional reasons but it had become a focal point for environmentalists. Furthermore, EDF Executive Director Fred Krupp told Ed Rensi that the EDF would publicly refuse to endorse the recycling program. All things considered, McDonald’s decided to phase out foam sandwich packaging in all US. McDonald’s within 60 days. The paper packaging used to replace the clamshell is not recyclable but it is nonetheless better for the environment and was expected to reduce the volume of waste by 90 percent. Richard Denison, senior scientist for the EDF, asserts, It was absolutely the right thing to do.