There is an old adage that says, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” You could probably call As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group, the squeaky wheel. The organization engaged McDonald’s, the largest fast food company in the world, for almost three years concerning replacing its polystyrene foam hot beverage cups with paper cups. This week, the fast food chain announced that it will do just that at all of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants.
In 2011, As You Sow introduced a shareholder proposal which asked McDonald’s to consider instituting stronger environmental policies for its beverage containers. The resolution pointed out that McDonald’s “has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to environmental leadership, yet continues to use polystyrene-based beverage cups 20 years after phasing out use of polystyrene-based clamshell food containers due to its negative environmental impact.” A total of 29.3 percent of its investors supported the resolution, which isn’t bad for a first-year resolution.
As You Sow then introduced a shareholder proposal in 2012. In March 2012, the company launched a pilot program to replace polystyrene foam cups with paper cups at 2,000 of its U.S. restaurants. The company tested double-walled fiber hot cups at 15 percent of its restaurants, mainly on the West Coast. The pilot was deemed successful and the company will now phase out use of polystyrene at all stores. In response, As You Sow withdrew its 2012 resolution.
As You Sow said in a statement that it is “pleased that the company decided to make the switch to paper cups permanent and expand it to all of its restaurants.” Although paper cups use “significant energy and chemicals in their production,” as the advocacy group stated, they don’t stay in the environment for hundreds of years as polystyrene foam does, and are “becoming readily more recyclable.”
The dangers of polystyrene
Styrene is the monomer used to make polystyrene, and it is a known lab animal carcinogen and a possible human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Several studies suggest there is a link between elevated rates of lymphoma in workers producing styrene through inhalation. Styrene easily migrates from packaging into foods and beverages. According to the EPA, 100 percent of Americans have styrene in their bodies.
Polystyrene containers cause environmental problems. Polystyrene has been cited as one of the most common trash found on beaches. The containers break down into small indigestible pellets that animals see as food, which results in the death of birds and marine animals. Forty-six counties and cities in California have either banned or restricted the use of polystyrene food packaging.
Waste in general is a big problem in the U.S.
Americans create more waste than any other country on the planet, but recycle much less than other developed countries. Companies have a role to play in reducing waste. As You Sow would like to see McDonald’s do what its competitor, Starbucks, does. Starbucks uses 10 percent recycled paper fiber in its hot beverage cups, and has committed to recycle all post-consumer paper and plastic cups thrown away in company-owned stores by 2015. In addition, Starbucks offers a discount for customers who bring in reusable beverage containers.