McDonald’s Considers Replacing Foam Cups With Paper

McDonalds, coffee, paper cups, foam cups, styrene, polystyrene, recycling, McCafe, fast food,
McDonald's will test paper cups in 2000 locations

Yesterday McDonald’s announced it would test paper coffee cups instead of the current foam cups in 2000 of its U.S. locations. Part of McDonald’s resurgence in recent years was because of their new McCafe drinks and improved roasted coffee. But in addition to giving coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts a run for their money, all those polystyrene foam cups create massive amounts of waste.

In addition to the waste problem, international health organizations like the International Agency for Research on Cancer have suggested that styrene in any form could have links to cancer. And as more consumers question not only the ingredients that make up their food, but the packaging in which they are delivered, even large companies like McDonald’s are taking a hard look at how they wrap and contain their products.

Calls for improved packaging are a familiar refrain for McDonald’s. In the 1980s, growing outcry about those bright polystyrene clamshell burger containers pushed McDonald’s into using paper instead. McDonald’s touts its reduce, reuse and recycle program, and now this is the opportunity for the burger giant to put its money where its mouth is. A change in business practices is important: litter from fast food companies is not only challenging municipalities with their waste diversion plans, but pollutes water supplies across the country, too.

So now like Starbucks, McDonald’s is stepping up on its recycling efforts. Paper is recycled easily compared to cups made out of styrene. If paper cups end up in landfill, they still have a chance at decomposing much quicker than those pesky foam cups.

Most of the pilot test sites will be on the West Coast. Of course there is one option McDonald’s could explore as a pilot: offering coffee for customers enjoying its product it its much improved, WiFi-enabled store locations: have it in a ceramic cup so less trash ends up having to recycled, which still consumes energy, or hauled to a landfill. Your local barista did not lie: it really does taste better in a ceramic cup. And less waste, or no waste from the onset, means a more sustainable option, too.

Next on McDonald’s agenda? How about eliminating those chlorine bleached white napkins? McDonald’s has admitted the change to unbleached bags and napkins in Canada has saved money.

Leon Kaye is a journalist, sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Leon Kaye.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

5 responses

  1. Switching to paper does not eliminate any waste. It just replaces one material for another, and in fact may increase waste because people will consume more thinking it is “better”. And in fact, for hot beverage cups, they have a plastic or wax type lining, which both makes these cups practically unrecyclable, and the effects of these linings on long term human health is unknown.
    This is greenwashing at it’s best.

  2. This is totally irresponsible journalism.  To “realist”‘s point, these cups are not recyclable nor compostable.  Please do some research on waste items in landfill, newspapers can be found 50, 60  or more year old and can still be read.  Sounds like you are trying to get headlines with the use of McD’s name..

    1. Is paper better than polystyrene or not?  Paper cups are certainly both recyclable and compostable.  Obviously, that depends on whether the user chooses to properly deal with them and how they are manufactured, etc..

  3. Switching to paper would be a good idea in my opinion, food does have to be served in some kind of containment maybe this organic option is best.
    My business has been trying to find a viable solution for waste produced by fast food outlets, this could be a step closer.
    If anyone from Mc Donalds etc reads this article maybe they can get in touch, as finding the person you need to speak with is almost impossible.
    Andy (Waste Food Solutions)

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