The opportunity

In the late 1980s, public concern over solid waste disposal was high and disposable food packaging was a highly visible component of the problem. And the visible waste was only part of the story —  almost 80% of McDonald’s waste stream was generated behind the counter, in food prep and supply systems.

McDonald’s faced rising public pressure about the amount of packaging and waste its restaurants produced. The best solutions from both an environmental and a business perspective were in reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.

Our strategy

On August 1, 1990, McDonald’s and Environmental Defense Fund joined forces in a groundbreaking partnership to find ways to reduce McDonald’s solid waste. The project team examined McDonald’s materials use and solid waste issues in its U.S. operations, including restaurants, distribution centers and suppliers.

The goals of the partnership focused on the following:

  • Reduction: Using less material
  • Reuse: Introducing reusables throughout the supply chain
  • Recycling: Return materials to productive use
  • Composting: Recycling organic materials when possible


As a result of the partnership, in April 1991 McDonald’s announced that it had made many changes to their packaging and waste management systems, including:

  • Switched from polystyrene foam “clamshells” to paper-based wraps for its sandwich packaging, providing a 70-90% reduction in sandwich packaging volume, reducing landfill space consumed, energy used and pollutant releases over the lifecycle of the package
  • Converted to unbleached paper carry-out bags, coffee filters and Big Mac wraps
  • Reduced paper use by 21% in napkins, and incorporated 30% postconsumer recycled content
  • Asked suppliers to incorporate 35% postconsumer recycled content into all corrugated shipping boxes

The company saves an estimated $6 million per year as a result of these packaging changes and in the decade following the partnership, McDonald’s eliminated over 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled 1 million tons of corrugated boxes, and reduced restaurant waste by 30%.