McDonald’s Is on the Brink of a Big Change

McDonald’s is replacing a necessary part of its business.

Fast food and the waste generated from it are in a constant state of push and pull. Every couple of years, a big name commits to scrapping a part of its packaging after landing in hot water over the environmental impact of serving cheap meat to billions of people.

It happened when, at the height of the world’s attention on how plastic straws clog up the ocean, Starbucks  (SBUX) – Get Starbucks Corporation Report committed to eliminating all single-use ones. 

As those who visit the coffee chain frequently will know well, cold drinks at Starbucks now come with recyclable sippy cup-style lids. They also faced some criticism and, as of 2022, those who insist on a straw can get a paper one with their drink.

Given its reach both nationwide and across the globe, burger giant McDonald’s  (MCD) – Get McDonald’s Corporation Report frequently falls under the microscope for its use of plastic in everything from its utensils to the toys that come in Happy Meals.

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McDonald’s Japan Is Feeling The Pressure

In the mid-20th century, the Golden Arches became one of the first to popularize food on the go and disposable packaging. But as the cultural zeitgeist shifted toward environmentalism in the 21st century, its reliance of plastic steadily started to gather scrutiny.

“The expanded polystyrene sandwich box, the ‘clamshell,’ was invented by Jon Huntsman Sr. in 1974,” Bioplastics News reported a few years ago. “Jon was frustrated with the paper packaging in which hamburgers were served as they didn’t keep the food warm and the juice leaked.”

In 2021, McDonald’s committed to “drastically reducing” the amount of plastic in its toys by 2025. Many of its restaurants across the world already offer a plastic-free version such as a book or a cardboard game.

But kids are only a small portion of the McDonald’s market and anyone eating there will use a lid, fork or cup in some way. In 2018, McDonald’s reported using 153,000 metric tons of plastic for its eating utensils; only 2% of it came from recycled material.

In an effort to eliminate 900 tons of plastic waste that comes from its Japanese branches, McDonald’s Japan announced that it will be replacing plastic straws with ones made from paper.

Plastic forks, spoons and knives will, in turn, be swapped by wooden ones from Oct. 7 onwards.

The Fast Food Industry’s Slow Shift Away From Plastic

As first reported by Nikkei Asia, the change has been in the works for several months and will affect all of McDonald’s Japan’s 2,900 locations in the country.

While a big environmental impact can certainly earn a company bad PR, Japanese chains have been feeling additional pressure after the country’s Cabinet passed an April ordinance requiring businesses to reduce its use of 12 types of worst-polluting plastics.

Similar pressure from both lawmakers and individuals in countries like France and the United Kingdom had also pushed McDonald’s into decreasing its use of plastic.

While McDonald’s and the fast food industry in general have made great strides toward more sustainable packaging in recent years, some criticized it for reacting to current cultural discussions rather than taking a deeper look at what is ultimately an unsustainable system: serving cheap meat in disposable containers to billions.

“McDonald’s serves billions of burgers a year, with massive consequences for our climate,” Center for Biological Diversity Director Stephanie Feldstein told Business Insider. “If McDonald’s really wants to create sustainable change, it can’t stop at plastic-free toys. The company needs to overhaul its menu, put the McPlant in every restaurant, and reduce the amount of beef it serves too.”

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