As You Sow calls out McDonald’s on continued use of polystyrene

McDonald’s continues to be in the crosshairs of As You Sow (Oakland, CA). The “shareholder advocacy group” once again has targeted the fast food chain in its bid to rid the world of plastic. Calling polystyrene (PS) used in single-use containers, beverage cups and food trays “harmful,” the group is calling out McDonald’s for its failure to eliminate the use of PS in its overseas restaurants.

McDonalds in Bangkok
Image courtesy Chris Brown/flickr.

The fast-food giant phased out the use of PS for hot beverage cups in the United States in 2013, but still uses it in overseas markets where plastic pollution migration into waterways is highest. As You Sow notes in its latest press release that the “same proposal was voted on by shareholders earlier this year and received the support of nearly one-third of shares voted.”

While As You Sow’s release claims that expanded polystyrene (EPS) is “rarely recycled” and, thus, leads to it being discarded in marine environments, the group needs to bone up on the recycling information for this material. According to the 2016 EPS Recycling Rate Report produced by the EPS Industry Alliance, 63 million pounds of EPS postconsumer materials and 55.7 million pounds of post-industrial materials were recycled in 2016, for a total of 118.7 million pounds. EPS can be effectively recycled and reused, and the rate is increasing every year, according to the EPS Industry Alliance, which lists 87 member companies that recycle EPS foam packaging.

As to the problem of EPS foam materials in the marine environment and the hazard that “indigestible pellets” represents for birds, fish and turtles, I would like to remind As You Sow once again that this is a people problem, not a plastics problem. Keeping EPS foam out of the environment takes some effort on the part of people, who should be discarding waste in a place where it can be recycled. People tend to be litterbugs, and that’s a problem no one seems to know how to solve.

As You Sow mentions the “negative health profile” of EPS foam, which is not scientifically proven. According to Dart Container Corp., which makes EPS foam products, the misinformation on EPS foam outweighs the science on this material. “Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are known to harm the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. Polystyrene foam foodservice products are not manufactured with CFCs or any other ozone-depleting chemicals. In fact, Dart has never used CFCs in manufacturing molded foam cups,” writes the company on its website. Manufacturers of PS foodservice products that once used CFCs in their manufacturing operations ceased using these blowing agents by 1990, adds Dart.

Additionally, says Dart’s information, “Polystyrene foam products are about 90% air and only 10% polystyrene,” given that an “expansion” agent is used to blow up the miniscule pellets into tiny foam beads. I had the opportunity to tour a Dart Container plant here in Phoenix a number of years ago and witnessed the process of making the foam beads and molding those into cups.

While PS foam products are manufactured using two types of blowing agents, pentane and carbon dioxide, Dart notes in its information that “CO2 is non-toxic, non-flammable, and does not contribute to low-level smog, nor does it deplete the stratospheric ozone layer.” The CO2 used in the manufacture of PS foam “is recovered from existing commercial and natural sources. As a result, the use of this blowing agent technology does not increase the net levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

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