Fast-Food Chains Feel Pressure to Get Rid of Plastic


For fast-food companies looking to join the Green Revolution, forgoing plastic packaging has suddenly become as American as the Golden Arches.

Environmental and industry officials said Friday that McDonald’s Corp.’s surprise decision this week to switch from plastic or foam packaging to paper for most items will put pressure on other fast-food chains to follow suit.

“We fully expect there will be a ripple effect from this decision,” said Dr. Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, which worked with McDonald’s to revise its packaging. “It’s an about-face, and (McDonald’s) decision to not use the material and not be on the firing line will only up the pressure on others.”


Many major fast-food chains said Friday that they had already made the changeover to paper from foam packaging or were planning to do so because of the growing public concern about landfills and the environment. Burger King, the No. 2 hamburger chain, already uses lightweight paper boxes.

The decision is also a blow to the polystyrene industry, which sells about 20% of its products to fast-food restaurants. The industry is already under attack in some localities because the manufacturing process gives off ozone-depleting chemicals.

Like other disposables--from Bic pens to Pampers diapers--the cushiony, pastel-colored foam package that serves as a home to Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets has become a staple of the American throw-away lifestyle. Foam boxes keep burgers hotter longer than paper packaging and are less expensive to produce.

To package foods in its 8,000 restaurants, McDonald’s uses an estimated 7% or more of the 1 billion pounds of polystyrene manufactured in the United States every year. That made the corporation a lightning rod for environmentalists concerned about plastic’s indestructibility and the space the containers consume in landfills.

McDonald’s had been moving toward a plan to recycle all its plastic containers. Instead, the company on Thursday announced a quick and unexpected decision to switch to paper and foil wrappers and boxes within 60 days. The decision was aimed at dispelling adverse publicity that McDonald’s was not a good environmental citizen.

Others have already jumped on the green bandwagon. McDonald’s archrival Burger King has never used foam boxes for burgers, a spokeswoman said. Anaheim-based Carl’s Jr. switched to cardboard containers in 1987.


Wendy’s tried plastic foam containers in 1986 for its Classic Sandwich. But they proved so cumbersome to handle compared to paper wraps--and trash cans filled up so quickly--that the containers never were used again, said spokesman Denny Lynch.

Foodmaker Inc., the San Diego-based parent company of the Jack-in-the-Box chain, has gone so far in its drive to eliminate plastics that drinks to be consumed at its restaurants will soon be served without lids, unless a customer requests one, said spokeswoman Jan McLane Reiger.

Still, foam packaging is unlikely to disappear entirely from the restaurant industry. Many independent take-out eateries depend entirely on foam clam-shell trays. Restaurants use them as doggie bags. Foam packages are likely to continue to be used for wet or unusually shaped items such as salads or baked potatoes.

And though the industry may try, one venerable foam item is proving the most difficult of all to eliminate: the Styrofoam coffee cup.

So far, McDonald’s and other chains say they cannot find a reasonable cardboard substitute that would be readily accepted by a public wary of burnt fingers and scorched thighs. One of the few exceptions is Burger King, which says that it will give paper cups a try following a successful test.

The plastics debate may be heating up among fast-food providers, but it should not have any great effect on the bottom line. The switch to paper packaging carries a negligible cost, said analyst Steven A. Rockwell of Alex. Brown & Co.