McDonald's may junk plastic boxes assailed by environmentalists

November 01, 1990|By John Holusha | John Holusha,New York Times News Service

The plastic McDonald's hamburger box may be on its way out, a packaging dinosaur that could not survive into a less wasteful age.

The rugged little box, which was a design innovation that became one of the nation's best-known packages before turning into a symbol of the garbage crisis, will be phased out by McDonald's Corp., according to people who have been informed of the decision.

Company officials at the headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., declined to comment. But Lee Masters of Golin Harris, McDonald's public relations agency, said yesterday that the company "plans a major news announcement [today] regarding the environment."

A decision to abandon the plastic foam container would be an abrupt about-face for the company, which for years has stoutly defended the need to use plastic in its restaurants.

McDonald's, which operates 8,000 restaurants in the United States, said the foam helps hold in heat, protects the food from contamination and resists grease stains better than paperboard boxes.

But environmental advocates say the production process generates pollutants and note that the box has a useful life of only a few minutes but lingers for decades when it is littered or dumped in a landfill. Plastics tend to last longer in the environment than items made from paper or wood.

As towns and cities enacted bans on containers that are not biodegradable or cannot be recycled, McDonald's has come under increasing pressure to change its packaging.

In response, it has participated in limited efforts to recycle its plastic and was close to an announcement that its current recycling program would be extended nationwide.

But some members of the plastics industry have questioned the economic viability of gathering and processing the material, which, because of its structure, is high in volume but low in value. Environmentalists have questioned the value of demonstration projects, asserting that unless there is a market for the reclaimed product and the process is economically sound, the recycled material has little value.

They also say printing the recycling symbol on paper packaging, as McDonald's has done, is misleading unless the material is actually being recycled.

Though most fast-food chains use plastic foam in some form, McDonald's, as the nation's largest chain, is the biggest user of these materials.

In Miami, a spokeswoman at Burger King Corp., a major competitor of McDonald's, said that the restaurant chain has used mainly paper packaging since its founding in 1954. The exception, polystyrene coffee cups, is in the process of being replaced by thick paper cups, she said.

Earlier this year, McDonald's said it would spend $100 million to help create markets from recycled materials. It said the materials would be used in building and remodeling its restaurants.

In August, it announced an unusual joint effort with the Environmental Defense Fund to conduct a six-month study into ways to reduce the solid waste generated at its 11,000 restaurants worldwide.

The director of the fund said the hamburger container was one item the group planned to look at closely.

Despite these efforts, the company has remained the target of environmental advocates.

On Monday, a group called the Earth Action Network broke the windows and scattered supplies at a McDonald's restaurant in San Francisco to protest the company's environmental policies.

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