Big Commitment From McDonald's and Dunkin' on Plastics Pollution

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As You Sow’s leadership work on reducing plastic pollution achieved a major victory early in 2018 with impressive commitments from McDonald’s to remove all polystyrene foam packaging from all restaurants around the world by this December, and to recycle all consumer packaging in restaurants worldwide by 2025. This was followed a few weeks later by Dunkin’ Brands agreeing to eliminate one billion foam cups from its operations. Between the two companies, approximately two billion foam cups will be replaced by recyclable paper cups in the next year.

Our shareholder proposal urging the company to phase out polystyrene was supported by 32 percent of shares voted in 2017. McDonald’s phased out foam cups for hot beverages in the U.S. after engagement with us in 2012, but continued to use them in foreign markets like Hong Kong and the Philippines, which had high levels of plastics in waterways. We refiled the proposal for 2018, but withdrew after the company agreed to phase out foam.

Plastic pollution creates litter on land and when swept into waterways can injure and kill marine life, spread toxins and pose a potential threat to human health. This issue was dramatically elevated in the past two years when better data became available:

  • A key 2015 study concluded that oceans contain far more degraded plastic than previously believed; an estimated 150 million tons of plastic, with 8 million tons added annually—equivalent to a garbage truck every minute.
  • A 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation study predicted oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050 if no actions occur to reduce the flow of plastics.

The McDonald’s commitment to recycle packaging in all stores worldwide will be formidable to achieve and requires unprecedented levels of involvement with recyclers and local governments. Other quick service brands need to work with peers to find ways to add more food packaging to curbside recycling streams and to help finance stable materials end markets.

We also made progress on foam used as a packing material. Last April, As You Sow withdrew a proposal at Target after it agreed to phase out foam packaging used in e-commerce.

In 2018, our work will expand by convening a group of ESG investors to work together on engaging companies and co-filing proposals. The Plastics Solutions Investor Alliance will engage both U.S. and European ESG investors; plastic pollution is already a much higher priority issue in Europe than in the U.S. In January 2018 alone, the European Commission released a plastics policy strategy, the U.K. Prime Minster unveiled a plastics waste plan, and UK retailer Iceland committed to stop using plastic packaging altogether. We will prioritize dialogues with four large consumer goods companies: Nestle SA, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Please contact us if you would like to participate in this new alliance!

Finally, a new As You Sow proposal at Starbucks asks the company to stop using plastic straws which are often found in beach cleanups and are harmful to marine life. It made previous commitments to serve 25 percent of beverages in reusable containers and to recycle on-site cups by 2015. It fell short on both counts and the proposal also seeks a new, more aggressive strategy to meet these goals.

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Conrad Mackerron

Senior Vice President, As You Sow