The greening of the Golden Arches has reached Baltimore.
Eight local McDonald's restaurants have quietly begun recycling their polystyrene foam food containers, and plans are to expand the effort to all 55 fast-food outlets in the metropolitan area.
"We're doing our best to get the kinks out of it as quickly as possible," says Geoff Carr, a McDonald's operations consultant based in Columbia. He predicted that each restaurant would recycle as much as one ton of foam trash per month, along with two tons of discarded cardboard and paper packaging.
The move, which follows an earlier push into cardboard recycling, is part of a series of environmental initiatives that McDonalds, the country's largest fast-food chain, has launched nationwide in the past year.
McDonald's has been under fire from environmental groups, and at least five cities have moved to ban foam food packaging. Environmentalists say that polystyrene foam, made from petroleum products, fills up precious landfill space and can take centuries to break down. They contend that using paper food wrappers -- and reducing packaging altogether -- are better than recycling foam.
The company has responded, changing its practices and launching an aggressive public relations campaign to portray itself as environmentally responsible.
Company officials pledged to stop using foam packaging that released chlorofluorocarbons, blamed for depleting the earth's protective ozone layer. The chain also vowed not to buy beef from Latin America, where environmentalists have complained that rain forests are being destroyed to raise cattle.
And besides recycling cardboard, paper and foam products, McDonald's has launched McRecycle, pledging to buy up to $100 million worth of recycled materials for use in its restaurants.
The Baltimore area polystyrene foam waste is being trucked to a private recycling center in Finksburg in Carroll County, where it is being stockpiled for now until the opening of a new plant in Philadelphia that will reuse foam from all over the mid-Atlantic region.
The foam recycling initiative has won praise from state officials. Gov. William Donald Schaefer last week visited the Carroll County recycling operation and hailed McDonald's and the local entrepreneurs involved in the Finksburg center, which also JTC collects plastic and other trash from the Baltimore area.
Rod Mann, owner of three Dundalk area McDonald's restaurants, said he was pleasantly surprised by how well the foam recycling program has been received by his customers since it began about three weeks ago.
"I wasn't sure what the reaction was going to be," Mann said, adding that he had been "a little anxious."
But Mann said his customers have been overwhelmingly cooperative in placing their foam "clamshells" for sandwiches and breakfasts in separate containers placed alongside the general trash cans.
Mann said he had to do some minor remodeling at his restaurant on Wise Avenue to accommodate the extra trashcans set out for foam "clamshells," plates and cups. But in other stores, he said, there has been no trouble arranging for recycling.
Separating the restaurants' trash has resulted in "a small increase" in his waste hauling costs, Mann said, but he predicted that recycling would wind up saving him and other McDonald's operators over time.
"I think the world will come out ahead, McDonald's will come out ahead, and the average (franchise) licensee will come out ahead," Mann said.
Mann acknowledged that he has been under fire from a class of 4th graders at nearby Charlesmont Elementary School. He said he has been writing to the students, explaining McDonald's environmental record and trying to clear up what he says is "misinformation" the youngsters had about the company's foam food containers.