Last week, McDonald’s announced their intention to replace polystyrene foam cups with paper cups at all 14,000 US locations. The move was inspired by a shareholder resolution filed by the advocacy group As You Sow.
As You Sow supports environmental and social corporate responsibility with various strategies, including shareholder advocacy. In terms of sustainable packaging, As You Sow urges companies to take responsibility for post-consumer waste, and to choose greener packaging options.
McDonald’s decision to phase out foam cups was a significant victory for As You Sow. Foam is not easily recyclable, and it breaks down into small indigestible bits in the ocean. It’s also listed as a possible carcinogen by the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program, and may cause cancer in humans.
Attempts to ban polystyrene–often incorrectly dubbed by the brand name, Styrofoam–have been gaining momentum across the nation. In Washington D.C., Mayor Vincent C. Gray submitted a proposal to ban foam food and beverage containers to the D.C. Council. Mayor Bloomberg has also pursued a ban for New York City, to take effect on December 1st. A number of west coast cities, including San Francisco and Portland, have already banned polystyrene.
In anticipation of the ban in New York, Dunkin’ Donuts began to replace the foam cups in late August. Given the iconic nature of the foam cup and the cup’s ability to maintain heat, the company chose to mimic the material. The cups are made of double-walled paper with a plastic liner, which will be difficult to recycle. As You Sow has been in dialogue with Dunkin Donuts for some time regarding the use of foam. Conrad MacKerron, a senior vice president at As You Sow, called the new cups “a pretty weak response.” Dunkin’ Donuts plans to continue to look for a more sustainable alternative to polystyrene which suits their requirements.
Luckily, given the growing consumer dislike of foam, and efforts made by organizations like As You Sow, many companies will likely follow McDonald’s lead, moving away from foam packaging.