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The History of Plastic: Is McDonalds to Blame for The Single-Use Plastic Mess We’re In?

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 04/08/2020 | 9 Minute Read

This is the second part of our series, The History of Plastic. You can find the first chapter on the invention of throwaway living here.


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could point our fingers at one single entity and blame them for our world’s current single-use plastic catastrophe? At the very least, it could help us direct our feelings of frustration over the prevalence of disposable silverware, straws getting pulled out of turtles, and wasteful, plastic-lined wrappers getting tossed in the trash. But at the very best, it might help us learn exactly how we got into this disastrous mess. We could understand where we went wrong, how we can possibly make it better, and how we can avoid this kind of mistake again.

It sounds almost too convenient to have only one responsible party for our society’s current reliance on single-use plastic. And we don’t want to point fingers, but it’s hard to ignore one massively influential company in particular which isn’t merely a player in the game of big biz plastic waste—it may have inspired the normalization and accepted use of single-use plastic.

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Corporations Vs. Individuals

If the emphasis on sustainable, green, eco-friendly, and/or environmentally responsible living has seemed to become more prominent, then you’re right. Consumers are willing to pay more for these options, and it’s not merely aspirational; consumers do pay more for these options, with a CPG growth of 50% in sustainability-marketed products

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But, dear consumer, buy all the silverware made from avocado pits you want and have a reusable straw handy in your back pocket-it still won’t make a dent. The real culprit when it comes to plastic isn’t you or I, it’s big business, with the worst offenders producing millions of tons of it each year. A real difference would have to come from the corporations and brands who are creating much of the plastic waste in the first place. After all, the first part of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is to simply reduce the use of anything that could generate trash in the first place. It’s not just a catchy saying; instead, reusing and recycling come in second and third in the list of priorities for minimizing trash.

As Greenpeace’s Abigail Aguilar told National Geographic, “We believe that the ones producing and promoting the use of single-use plastics have a major role in the whole problem.” 

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The Rise of Fast Food and That Glam Single-Use Plastic Life

In 1948, Maurice and Richard McDonald opened a hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, California. Ray Kroc was the supplier for milkshake appliances at McDonald’s, and he ended up convincing the McDonald brothers to opt for a franchise model with their little joint. Ray would go on to become the first franchisee in 1952 and eventually bought them out in 1961.

Around the time McDonald’s came onto the scene, Throwaway Living was all the rage (if you haven’t seen our piece on that 1950s trend, learn all about it here). Getting to throw out dishes and silverware when finished with dinner was seen as the glamorous thing to do. Washing dishes? Please, that was a thing of the ‘40s! With disposable items like plates and silverware, people could reclaim those precious hours spent washing and drying their Fiestaware.

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No, McDonald’s didn’t invent plastic or the concept of fast food (we have White Castle to thank for our cuisine on-the-go), but over time it has had the most financial success in the United States of any other quick service restaurant. By 1963, they opened their 500th location in Toledo, Ohio, all of them owned by separate franchisees but all run with strictest of standardized operations to ensure a consistent level of quality en masse. Today McDonald’s exists in over 100 countries with more than 37,000 locations. This kind of success is the epitome of the American dream, and, in turn, creates a certain amount of influence as other restaurants follow similar business models hoping for the same. The company is very much viewed as “a symbol of American business as well as a major owner of American real estate.” 

Seinfeld's Jason Alexander singing about the joys of the McDLT and its Styrofoam packaging.

According to CBC News, “The growth—both by McDonald's and the fast-food industry it has led—has transformed how people eat. In 1970, Americans were having about a quarter of their meals away from home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 2012, that percentage had grown to 43 percent.” They report similar results from nearly every other country where McDonald’s has appeared, citing that 10 percent of meals in India are eaten away from home compared to only 3 percent in 2003.

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While it wasn’t the first fast-food chain, it still managed to pave the way in the industry. And since McDonald’s overlapped with the time of Throwaway Living, it changed our world in a significant way. The fast-food concept at McDonald’s wasn't all about cutting costs—it was about maximizing profit in this stripped-down experience of eating out. They offered counter service (thus eliminating the need for servers) and had burgers cooked in advance, just needing to keep them warm with heat lamps. Ray Kroc hated the wasted space between cans or glass bottles of milk, so in the 1960s, he urged the dairy industry to instead use plastic-lined cartons. This packaging quickly became the norm nationwide, offering a lighter, cheaper, and more space-saving option while shipping (you likely opened up a small milk carton yourself back in the day at school).

And, of course, there were things like single-use plastic silverware, which eliminated the need for someone to wash those pesky dishes. 

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Furthermore, plastic cup lids and straws made it even more convenient for customers to grab something to go, while plastic-wrapped plastic toys in Happy Meals added an additional draw for families with children. Styrofoam containers were light—meaning they cost less to ship—and allowed guests to take their food to go with ease. This incredibly profitable fast-food chain embraced a toss-it mentality, and that undoubtedly set an example for similar restaurants as well.

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Power to the People

It may feel like we cannot change what enormous businesses like this do. McDonald’s surpassed $100 billion in Systemwide sales in 2019 alone, so what does it matter what the fans or the haters say? 

As it turns out, it matters quite a lot.

In the 1980s, consumers began criticizing McDonald’s for its use of those styrofoam clamshell containers, the lightweight, super-terrible-for-the-planet ones. While the restaurant chain’s packaging was made from paper when they first started, they likely switched to Styrofoam for its cost-effectiveness. By the end of the decade, Styrofoam bans were beginning to go into place, even though McDonald’s environmental affairs department insisted Styrofoam “aerates the soil.” 

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But more than anything, consumers wanted nothing to do with it. More and more people were choosing the products based on their effect on the environment, and they wanted Styrofoam to go. McDonald’s donated money to environmental groups as a Hail Mary to keep using their packaging of choice, but they were eventually advised to change their operations.

Rather than make sweeping changes at first, though, they took small steps—none of which seemed to satisfy the public.

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First, they replaced the CFCs in the container (the blowing agent used during production) because there were reports it contributed to ozone depletion. When grassroots environmental groups launched a “Ronald McToxic Campaign”—which did everything from picketing at the restaurants to mailing clamshells back to the headquarters—McDonald’s introduced incinerators. Well, Ronald McToxic quickly became “McPuff.” By 1989, even schoolchildren were done with the brand, founding a group called “Kids Against Polystyrene.” 

In 1990, McDonald’s finally agreed to stop using foam for their burger packaging. They continued to use it in other items, like cups, for years to come, and it wasn’t until 2018 that they made the promise to eliminate it from their global markets.

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More recently, consumers were urging companies to make a switch as simple as ditching plastic straws for paper ones. McDonald’s in the UK—where 1.8 million straws get used daily—followed suit. The brand states that, globally, about 22% of their packaging remains in plastic for function or food safety, but they aim to reduce plastic where they can (although they give no further specifics on their Packaging and Recycling page).

With these examples, it feels like McDonald’s is only playing along because they’re caught in a situation where they can no longer afford the bad publicity. After the decision to get rid of Styrofoam in 1990, for instance, the company’s general counsel Shelby Yastrow even explained, “The clamshell package was the symbol that everyone glommed onto. We knew if we got rid of that thing, it would be like pulling forty thorns from our paw.” 

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But why isn’t McDonald’s trying to lead the way with innovation rather than grudgingly head in the direction of more environmentally sound packaging? The likes of Amy’s Kitchen, Super Duper, and Burgerville all manage to have compostable packaging—why not the Golden Arches?

At the very least, McDonald’s is working to evolve. Aside from their goal to have sustainable packaging by 2025, they’ve taken part in exciting, eco-conscious endeavors. In 2018 they teamed up with Starbucks for the NextGen Cup Challenge, fronting millions of dollars so that entrepreneurs could step up and try to find a new, compostable coffee cup. And last year, they hosted a 10-day experiment in Berlin where they opened a plastic-free restaurant, utilizing waffle cups for ketchup containers, wooden cutlery instead of single-use plastic ones, and burger wrappers made of grass (!) instead of paper. 

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“A lot goes into environmentally sustainable packaging,” they confessed on their site. “We need to comply with upcoming regulations (a ban on many single-use plastic items in the European Union is taking effect in 2021). We want our customers to know we care about the environment. But above all, we want to create a more innovative, better McDonald’s.”

They looked at this pop-up as an opportunity to open a discussion about what worked and what didn’t (turns out the waffle cups will require a different shape for their chicken nuggets, and half of the guests felt the wood utensils tasted like, well, wood). This temporary Berlin restaurant indicates they know they need to make progress with how they handle single-use plastic, although they’ve said they aren’t rolling out any significant changes yet.

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But imagine if they did. Imagine if the fire Ray Kroc had to save a buck in 1956 were the same fire McDonald’s executives had today to eliminate plastic waste from their restaurants worldwide. No one is saying it would be easy, and no one claims it will be cheap, but it would undoubtedly influence every other restaurant out there to do the same. 

If McDonald’s hadn’t latched onto single-use plastic, surely some other restaurant would have. They’re not the sole reason single-use plastics have invaded our oceans and overtaken our landfills, but they are at least somewhat complicit and have a power (both financial and influential) to do something positive about it. 

McDonald’s changed the world with its approach to dining and embrace of Throwaway Living—will it step up and change it again?

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