Ms. Gokturk                                                                                                      Writing for the 21st C

One Big Mac, Hold the Box!

McDonald's faces a children's crusade against polystyrene (Time Magazine, June 25, 1990 )

By Janice Castro

Many adults like McDonald's for its convenience, but children have a special devotion. The sight of the Golden Arches seems to send kids' blood racing. Lately, though, some disillusioned youngsters have been insisting on eating elsewhere. A few have even been picketing McDonald's stores. To urge a boycott of the company's outlets, Kurtiz Schneid, a New Jersey high school student, demonstrated in front of the United Nations dressed as "Ronald McToxic." His message: "The planet deserves a break today!"

Why would children resist their craving for Chicken McNuggets? In a word: polystyrene. Environmentally conscious youngsters are up in arms about the soft plastic used to make disposable soft-drink cups, hamburger boxes and other lightweight thermal containers. The material is nonbiodegradable and can give off toxic fumes when burned. The food industry uses more than 1 billion lbs. of the material every year to pack its products. McDonald's (1989 sales: $17 billion) is the world's largest single consumer. Each day 22 million customers buy food in 11,000 of its outlets in 52 countries. An estimated 30% of the food is wrapped in polystyrene packages, which means that McDonald's customers toss out more than 45 million lbs. of so-called clamshell boxes and other polystyrene waste each year.

Local governments in Berkeley, Portland, Ore., and Glen Cove, N.Y., have banned the material, forcing McDonald's to switch to paper packaging. About a dozen other cities have enacted similar restrictions, and hundreds more towns have considered such laws.

The children's crusade has been building since a group called Kids Against Pollution was started three years ago by a fifth-grade civics class at the Tenakill School in Closter, N.J., to urge a ban on polystyrene at the school. Since their victory, 800 chapters of the student group have sprung up in the U.S. and Europe. One of KAP's primary goals is to reform the biggest polystyrene user of all. In West Milford, N.J., Jennifer Brailey, 12, has persuaded her family and friends to boycott McDonald's stores, or at least refuse any food that is enclosed in polystyrene containers. She has helped organize letter-writing campaigns to urge McDonald's to stop using the material. In some states, students have mounted a Send-It-Back campaign, in which they pack up greasy packaging and mail it to local McDonald's stores or to the company's headquarters in Illinois.

The company contends the youths are misguided in assuming that paper wrappings represent a lesser threat to the environment than clamshell boxes. For example, polystyrene packaging can be recycled far more easily than the treated paper used for wrapping food. McDonald's recycles such containers from 500 of its 8,200 U.S. stores and expects to include 1,500 more outlets by the end of the year. After the material is broken down into plastic pebbles, it can be reconstituted into artificial lumber, trash cans and other plastic products. Says Shelby Yastrow, McDonald's senior vice president for environmental affairs: "We used to use paper only. We could do it again. It's not that we can't. It's just that we see no reason to change."

The company spends $100 million annually on environmental projects. Besides handing out grants to the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups, McDonald's is studying ways to use recycled polystyrene materials in building new stores. Says Jan Beyea, senior scientist for the National Audubon Society: "What McDonald's is doing is just a start, but a beginning nonetheless. We are an incredibly wasteful nation, and McDonald's shouldn't be treated as if it's responsible for 100% of that waste."

            Maybe not, but the company could take an even harder look at its packaging policies. In the most obvious case, McDonald's should distinguish between customers who eat in the store and those who carry out the food. Every hour, tons of unnecessary paper bags, wrappers and plastic boxes are discarded a few feet from the cash registers. Moral: McDonald's has already given the planet a break, but Mother Earth could use a few more.