McToxics Campaign Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A consumer boycott prompted McDonald’s restaurants, the largest fast-food institution in the world, to replace polystyrene food containers with packaging that was less destructive to the environment.

Summary of Event

In the late 1980’s, the fast-food business suffered a serious and prolonged decline in sales and prestige. To industry players, this change was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Fast food had been a fact of American life since the 1920’s, and the industry had prospered through depression, recession, world war, and Cold War. Many factors played a part in the 1980’s sales slump, not the least of which was an increasing interest among Americans in health and longevity. In the case of McDonald’s, however, the decline was deliberately engineered by environmental activists—the result of a public campaign to encourage the company to abandon its use of polystyrene packaging. Environmental activism McDonald’s restaurants[Macdonalds restaurants];boycott Polystyrene food containers [kw]McToxics Campaign Begins (1987) [kw]Campaign Begins, McToxics (1987) McToxics campaign[Mactoxics campaign] Environmental activism McDonald’s restaurants[Macdonalds restaurants];boycott Polystyrene food containers [g]North America;1987: McToxics Campaign Begins[06320] [g]United States;1987: McToxics Campaign Begins[06320] [c]Environmental issues;1987: McToxics Campaign Begins[06320] [c]Trade and commerce;1987: McToxics Campaign Begins[06320] Krupp, Frederic D. Yastrow, Shelby Rensi, Ed Cantalupo, Jim

The compact polystyrene containers the company was using, dubbed “clamshells” because of their appearance and function, were initially praised by fast-food industry experts. The containers were cheap to produce and exceptionally good at doing what they were designed to do—they kept hot food hot. Polystyrene was a commonly used thermoplastic attractive to industry because of its lightness, rigidity, and insulating ability. It was used extensively in the creation of sheet metals and as packaging material for sensitive electrical equipment. Eventually, polystyrene became as ubiquitous in American life as other forms of plastic. Inside the home, it appeared as disposable dinnerware, condiment containers, and beer coolers.

Because clamshells and other polystyrene foam products were used so extensively by the fast-food industry, they constituted a serious waste problem. Polystyrene containers have a long afterlife; they do not biodegrade as quickly or as easily as other materials. Clamshells were also suspected of containing chlorofluorocarbons Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the gaseous chemical compounds responsible for depletion of the earth’s ozone layer. Ozone layer;damage As CFCs decay, they produce chlorine, which breaks down ozone in the stratosphere. Without sufficient ozone shielding, the earth is bombarded with excessive amounts of ultraviolet radiation. Prolonged exposure to such radiation may lead to cancers and other serious ailments in living things. CFCs were originally used as industry cleaning agents for highly technical equipment and as refrigerants for freezers and air conditioners, but for a time CFCs were also employed as expanders in the manufacture of foam containers.

McDonald’s seemed an unlikely target for environmental activism. For many years, the firm had pursued an enlightened environmental policy. It had devoted millions of dollars to the cause of recycling, Recycling particularly of polystyrene containers. McDonald’s went from paper to foam in the early 1970’s primarily because of the advantage that foam containers had over paper in keeping food fresh and hot. Even then, long before environmental consciousness became widespread, the firm claimed to have an environmental agenda in mind. With its own paper dependence significantly reduced, McDonald’s hoped to minimize the number of trees harvested for paper production.

McDonald’s had also been instrumental in curtailing some of the more wasteful practices of the dairy industry. The firm refused to purchase products contained in bottles and cans, insisting instead on space-saving rectangular containers made of paper and plastic. Because McDonald’s was the biggest food seller in the world and was, therefore, potentially the world’s largest retail consumer of dairy-related products, the dairy industry elected to comply with these demands and converted its packaging systems.

Before it made the change from paper to foam, McDonald’s commissioned the Stanford Research Institute to study the potential impact of foam containers on the environment. Stanford concluded that foam was not significantly better or worse for the earth than paper and that, compared with paper, foam packaging was somewhat less environmentally harmful. McDonald’s would maintain this position years after the debate ended and the matter was settled in favor of paper.

In 1987, the Environmental Defense Fund Environmental Defense Fund;McToxics campaign[Mactoxics campaign] (EDF), an activist organization, began a grassroots campaign against McDonald’s. Because school-age children constituted much of McDonald’s customer base, the EDF educated children about the environmental hazards of polystyrene packaging and then cleverly employed these youthful activists in its program of protest. Ronald McDonald, the fictional character created by McDonald’s to market products, was magically transformed to “Ronald McToxic.” Children wrote letters, made posters, and staged public demonstrations, all before the watchful eye of the television camera, and consumers began to boycott McDonald’s. Some consumers wrote indignant letters to the company; others simply sent empty clamshells, allowing these to speak for themselves. The company’s profits began to slide, and as the economically challenging 1990’s loomed ahead, McDonald’s entered a recession of its own.

McDonald’s general counsel, Shelby Yastrow, became convinced that the firm would have to bend to the public will if it wanted to get back on track. He encouraged McDonald’s to undertake the packaging changes demanded by the EDF and its supporters. Eventually, Yastrow was invited to speak on a television program on which the EDF executive director, Frederic D. Krupp, was also scheduled to appear. Yastrow used the program as an opportunity to enter into a direct dialogue with Krupp.

At the time, environmentalism, like fast food, was entrenched in the American landscape. Environmental activists had come a long way since the confrontational 1960’s and 1970’s. Many environmentalists preferred battle in the boardroom to war in court. Krupp was ready to negotiate, and on August 1, 1990, McDonald’s and the EDF came to a tentative agreement. A task force composed of EDF officials and McDonald’s executives was created to address issues of waste reduction. EDF staff members were to be placed in one McDonald’s restaurant as observers and assistants. Participation was voluntary, and an escape clause was included that allowed either or both parties to exit at their discretion. On November 1, 1990, McDonald’s published a press release in which Ed Rensi, president of U.S. operations, and Jim Cantalupo, president of the firm’s international division, announced their decision to abandon the use of polystyrene packaging in favor of paper.


The packaging switch to paper was made with great fanfare. The much-despised clamshells were banished, replaced by less controversial paper packaging. In all, McDonald’s pledged to enact widespread environmental reform in the four broad areas of waste reduction, waste recycling, sanitary landfill disposal, and incineration, with waste-to-energy conversion an option when conditions allowed. Fast-food industry[Fast food industry] McToxics campaign[Mactoxics campaign]

McDonald’s also undertook forty-two less-publicized changes, most of them touching on waste reduction and recycling. Unbleached paper bags were introduced into the restaurants, as were smaller napkins, thus encouraging recycling and reducing the amount of paper required to produce napkins. Ketchup was provided in larger packages, which resulted in fewer empty containers and therefore less waste. McDonald’s also promised to recycle anything made of corrugated cardboard, such as storage boxes, and to compost eggshells, bread, coffee grounds, and other organic materials whenever such composting was possible.

McDonald’s had been quietly introducing such changes for years. In 1978, the test weight of the company’s sandwich wrap paper dropped from 20 to 15 pounds. Three million pounds of paper were saved that year as a result. In 1983, McDonald’s deliberately reduced the thickness of its foam containers by 28 percent, an improvement that also decreased the firm’s annual packaging requirements.

To reduce its dependence on waste-producing packaging further, McDonald’s did away with separate containers for orange juice in favor of concentrate, slimming by 10 percent the amount of packaging previously employed for that purpose. Corrugated cup packaging was eliminated in 1981, with a corresponding annual paper savings of more than 600,000 pounds. Other changes the company made in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s included thinner plastic drinking straws and significant decreases in the amount of paper used to create hot cups and boxes for french fries.

With the new programs under way, the pace of these early reforms accelerated substantially. In 1990, McDonald’s reported a packaging reduction of 24 million pounds annually and estimated an additional savings of 35 million pounds per year once planned recycling programs were enacted. A clever innovation in soft drink distribution was also introduced that promised to slice even more from the company’s annual paper bill. Before the change, soft drink syrup was shipped to individual restaurants in cardboard containers and mixed on-site with water and carbon dioxide. The new system allowed delivery trucks to inject the syrup directly into tanks inside the restaurants, thus reducing a formerly complicated and waste-producing process to a relatively simple operation that created little or no waste.

McDonald’s used its influence to encourage others in the food industry to follow its lead. The firm insisted that suppliers enact environmentally sound policies, such as using packaging made from recycled materials. Other industries with a corollary interest in the fast-food business were swayed by McDonald’s crusading spirit and made environmentally friendly reforms of their own.

Another important outcome of the McToxics campaign was the agreement itself. McDonald’s, and the fast-food industry in general, had long been a target for environmental activism. Early efforts were more combative than conciliatory, however, with litigation and public business bashing employed as favorite tactics. Representatives of some environmentalist groups had even met with executives from McDonald’s, but in these rare cases, both sides had left the table more entrenched in their positions than they had been before negotiations began. When the EDF decided to work with McDonald’s instead of going to war with the company, it demonstrated the effectiveness of environmental groups as agents of change and showed that it was possible to negotiate peacefully with industry to bring about such change. This development was unprecedented.

Nevertheless, the agreement did not proceed unchallenged. Some people within the fast-food industry were convinced that McDonald’s had surrendered before the environmental benefits promised by the agreement could be scientifically tested. Some scientists and even some environmentalists expressed doubts that the changes would have any benefits at all. Even the notorious clamshell became a topic of dispute among industry specialists, scientists, and environmentalists, with debate continuing on the actual danger the packaging posed for the environment.

The more extreme fringe of the environmentalist community took strong issue with the EDF, accusing the organization of conspiring with the enemy. Some groups were adamantly opposed to the continued operation of fast-food institutions. Others, most of them organizations competing with the EDF for public support, complained that Krupp and his people had commandeered the clamshell project for their own purposes. These voices of reaction, however shrill, did not keep the historic agreement from coming about. Krupp achieved his reforms, and McDonald’s gained much credibility as a progressive institution, without the necessity of federal government intervention.

Admittedly, McDonald’s reaped much more than it spent to make the changes. The firm could justifiably call itself environmentally progressive, and its self-promoted image as all-American was enhanced in the minds of many U.S. consumers. Although aftershocks of the 1980’s health quake still reverberated through the industry, more Big Macs were sold after the reforms than immediately before them. These burgers, however, were served without the controversial clamshells. Negotiation yielded a policy that was good for business and good for the environment. McToxics campaign[Mactoxics campaign] Environmental activism McDonald’s restaurants[Macdonalds restaurants];boycott Polystyrene food containers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Drop-Off Centers Put Polystyrene in Its Place.” American City and County 7 (July, 1993): 13. Describes a new recycling program in Detroit, Michigan, that set up numerous polystyrene centers throughout the metro area. Participation is communitywide, with involvement by institutions such as school districts, supermarkets, and churches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, E. Bruce. “Best Practices of Partnering.” In Going Green. Homewood, Ill.: Business One Irwin, 1993. Describes the McToxics campaign and the unlikely partnership that evolved between McDonald’s and the EDF. Asserts that this partnership set the standard by which all such unions should be measured and demonstrated what can be achieved when opposing forces stop fighting and start talking.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livesey, Sharon M. “McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund: A Case Study of a Green Alliance.” Journal of Business Communication 36, no. 1 (1999): 5-39. Focuses on the nature of the public discourse that took place between McDonald’s and the EDF as the two organizations formed a partnership to address environmental issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“McDonald’s Won’t Give Break to CFC Foam Blowing Agents.” Chemical Marketing Reporter 10 (August, 1987): 5. Written shortly after McDonald’s announced its intention to stop using polystyrene clamshells. Describes how the decision to halt the use of such containers affected the company’s relationships with packaging suppliers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smock, Doug. “Recycling of EPS Packaging Is Booming: Rates Hit 12 Percent After Just One Year of a Molder-Led Effort.” Plastics World, January, 1993, 8-9. Describes the worldwide effort to recycle polystyrene and the cost and management problems that developed as a result. Written for specialists in the plastics industry, but the environmental relevance and scope of the problem are easily grasped by the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stern, Alissa J., with Tim Hicks. The Process of Business/Environmental Collaborations: Partnering for Sustainability. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2000. Addresses the increasingly common phenomenon of collaboration rather than conflict between business interests and environmental activists. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tisopulos, Laki. “A Local Response to Control Air Emissions from Foam Products.” Nation’s Cities Weekly 14 (July 29, 1991): 6. Details the case against polystyrene. Argues strongly against the use of CFCs as a blowing agent in the manufacturing process of foam products. Also discusses alternative blowing agents and applauds legislation aimed at controlling the creation and distribution of potentially toxic materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Townsend, Rob. “Companies Combat Solid Waste: Seven Polystyrene Makers Join Forces, Aim for 25 Percent Recycling Rate by 1995.” Restaurants and Institutions Report 18 (September, 1989): 30. Relates how raised awareness concerning solid wastes, one of many aftershocks that rocked the business community in the wake of the McToxics campaign, inspired seven of the world’s largest corporations to form the National Polystyrene Recycling Company.

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Categories: History