EPS food container controversy—a tale (almost) as old as time

Every time I see another press release from the advocacy group As You Sow, I’m reminded how long this debate over McDonald’s use of expanded polystyrene foam food containers has been going on. While cleaning out some files, I found Wall Street Journal clippings on this topic dating back to the early 1990s.

Quarter pounder
Image courtesy Peter Baldes/flickr.

One headline read: “McDonald’s to Drop Plastic Foam Boxes in Favor of High-Tech Paper Packaging.” The article, by WSJ writer Scott Kilman, announced that McDonald’s Corp. had decided to phase out EPS foam food containers and replace them with “what is being called a breakthrough in paper packaging technology.”

Kilman writes that this new paper technology “is a blow to the plastics industry, which has been under attack by environmental groups who complain that the industry’s foam containers are difficult to recycle.” While not much was known about this so-called “new paper technology” developed by James River Corp., we do know that it was called Quilt-Rap and claimed to be biodegradable.

“More importantly, James River said the packaging can do almost the same job of retaining a sandwich’s heat and controlling condensation as the [EPS] clam shell container—the characteristics that had long made the polystyrene-based boxes popular with McDonald’s,” said the WSJ article, which quoted McDonald’s USA President Ed Rensi saying, “It is a real breakthrough.”

An unnamed McDonald’s spokesperson said “the company’s overseas franchises will also phase out use of the foam container, but a timetable hasn’t been set.”

The 1991 article noted that McDonald’s was a major buyer of EPS foam food containers, but cited a Dow Chemical spokesperson who said that McDonald’s move “won’t have a noticeable impact on the company’s sales. ‘But we are disappointed in what they have done.'" McDonald’s tried to offset the negatives of using EPS foam food containers by implementing recycling opportunities for the material, but environmental groups weren’t satisfied, and the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, the Boston office of Ralph Nader’s lobbying network, had attacked McDonald’s attempts to recycle PS, said the WSJ.

Something that I found interesting in the article was that Robert C. Williams, then President and CEO of James River, said that the paper wrap, which was created specifically for McDonald’s, weighs about a third of a PS container and “takes up less volume.” Where, I wonder. In a landfill? Here’s the real kicker: “The paper wrap can be made with plastic in order to form a barrier, but the product apparently gets its insulating characteristics from the way the material is knit together,” the article said.

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