McDonald’s new paper coffee cups brewed from 23 years of hard work and NGO partnership

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is delighted to hear the good news from McDonald’s that it will transition away from polystyrene foam cups and opt for more sustainable fiber-based paper cups to serve hot coffee drinks in at its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. This is a significant step forward for the company — one that builds on decades of hard work.

Twenty-three years ago, EDF embarked on a partnership with McDonald’s to prove the business case for recycled paper packaging over polystyrene foam. In an era when environmental and business interests were typically not aligned, this was the first of its kind partnership between an environmental group and a Fortune 500 company.

The groundbreaking project ultimately phased out the old fashioned foam clamshell food containers at McDonald’s restaurants; eliminating more than 300 million pounds of packaging, recycling 1 million tons of corrugated boxes and reducing waste by 30 percent over a decade. Today, the majority of quick-service restaurants serve food in paper packaging.

Phasing out foam beverage cups is an important next step for McDonald’s and the industry as a whole, especially given the coffee culture that is our current way of life.

Just as EDF worked with McDonald’s to transform food packaging in the nineties, we then worked with Starbucks to transform coffee cup practices… and how far coffee cup practices have come.

When we first started looking at Starbucks, it was serving its hot brews in double stacked paper cups for the sake of its customer’s fingertips. This doubled the amount of solid waste the company created from hot beverage cups. EDF identified better solutions for keeping its customers’ hands cool. The result? In 1997 Starbucks introduced a corrugated paper coffee sleeve made from 60 percent postconsumer recycled fiber that was 45 percent lighter than the second cup it replaced.

Coffee sleeves seem anything but innovative nowadays, but the industry is continuing with its momentum on packaging. Tim Hortons, Canada’s leading quick-service restaurant, announced just last week that it has closed the loop on its coffee cups through its cup-to-tray project. The company collects coffee cups, lids, napkins and trays in recycling bins, sorts and compresses them, and ultimately turns old material into new trays.

So what have we learned over the past 23 years? Paper cups are far better than foam cups. One paper cup with a sustainable sleeve is better than two paper cups. And paper cups that can be recycled and turned into trays (or even better new cups) are really cool.

The industry is still far from perfect in regard to its beverage vessels though. EDF would like to see more of our leading coffee culture suppliers serving up a zero waste culture along with our venti-double-caff-mocha-cappuccinos.