BURGER TO GO – HOLD THE PLASTIC
Polystyrene foam is one of the great success stories of modern industry. Light, shock-resistant, insulating and cheap to make, it shows up everywhere: in disposable coffee cups, in boxes that hold fast-food hamburgers, as packing ‘peanuts’ for safe shipping. But the stuff has a serious downside as well. Polystyrene is bulky, taking up space in landfills; as a plastic, it takes decades to decompose; its manufacture causes the release of hazardous chemicals; and the market for recycling it is hopelessly limited.
Environmentalists have argued for years that the foam should simply be banned. They now have an unlikely ally: McDonald’s. America’s largest fast-food chain and frequent target of environmental protests announced last week that it would begin phasing out foam packaging within 60 days at its 8,500 U.S. restaurants. The move came as a surprise. The company has long said the containers were not necessarily a problem and had planned a $100 million campaign to recycle them. But ecology-minded customers were increasingly unhappy with the packages. As a result, McDonald’s is making the phaseout part of a broad pro-environment initiative that the company is developing in partnership with the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund.
McDonald’s will probably replace its foam hamburger boxes with material similar to the thin paper used to wrap its smallest sandwiches. That is not a perfect solution either. The paper is not yet recyclable, and while it does break down in landfills, its production requires cutting down trees. But it takes up 90% less space than foam when discarded, and McDonald’s is testing a paper-recycling technique in some of its California stores. If it can find alternatives, the chain may also replace its polystyrene plates and coffee cups.
One possible substitute for some uses of polystyrene comes straight from nature. To replace the plastic-foam pellets that are used to protect delicate merchandise during shipping, at least two companies in California are trying to market a biodegradable, in fact, edible, alternative: popcorn. The drawbacks are that it is more expensive to produce than polystyrene pellets and tends to attract rodents and insects.
Nonetheless, a handful of mail-order companies and other shippers in the U.S., Canada and Europe have begun packing with popcorn (butter and salt not included). Such small innovations, along with dramatic shifts by companies like McDonald’s, may someday eliminate a major insult to the environment.