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McDonald's scraps foam containers

McDonald's Corp. said Thursday it has bowed to criticism from environmentalists and would replace the plastic foam containers it has used for years with recyclable paper wrapping for its hamburgers. Like many other corporations, McDonald's has recently become more responsive to criticism from environmental groups.

Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's, the world's biggest fast-food chain with 11,400 stores, said it would start phasing out the plastic boxes within 60 days due to environmentalists' concerns, although it did not think foam packaging is harmful.

"Although some scientific studies indicate that foam packaging is environmentally sound, our customers just don't feel good about it. So we're changing," Ed Rensi, president of McDonald's U.S. operations, said in a statement.

The company is still trying to determine suitable replacements for plastic cutlery and the plastic cups in which coffee is served, Rensi said. He said the packaging changes are not expected to affect the company's retail prices or McDonald's profits.

Shelby Yastrow, McDonald's senior vice president, said the phase-out is worldwide and will be complete in the United States within four to six months. "It's harder to say when it will be complete internationally," he said.

Currently, 75 percent of the company's packaging is paper, Yastrow said.

Environmentalists say the plastic box's production process generates pollutants and that the packages, dumped in landfills, last for decades and endanger the environment.

The initiative is the first under McDonald's alliance with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-profit environmental group with more than 200,000 members.

Environmentalists praised McDonald's decision, but a spokesman for the packaging industry said the company was folding under pressure that isn't based on fact.

"You don't want to get rid of (the boxes) altogether," said Joseph Bow, president of the Foodservice & Packaging Institute in Washington. "They provide consumers with a sanitary and timesaving method of food delivery."

McDonald's "is bowing to public pressure that is based on misperceptions and misinformation," said Bow.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington said her agency had no studies that indicated foam packaging is environmentally sound.

However, said spokeswoman Robin Woods, "It may not be an environmental hazard because it's inert. It's not something that breaks down easily and leaches into landfills, for example."

Fred Krupp, EDF's executive director, hailed McDonald's decision to phase out the plastic foam boxes.

"This is a leadership decision. It's going to be the end of the polystyrene clam shell," he said. Krupp predicted other fast-food companies are likely to follow McDonald's lead.

A number of U.S. towns and cities have banned the use of polystyrene, saying it not only contributes to the growing shortage of landfill space but also is made with chemicals that harm the atmosphere's protective ozone layer.

McDonald's archrival, Burger King Corp., has been using mostly paper-based products since its founding in 1954, except for polystyrene coffee cups, which it is replacing with paper cups.

The drive to appear green has been fueled by rising environmental consciousness in American consumers, some of whom boycott environmentally unfriendly companies.

Several other companies have already changed their business policies to appease environmentalists.

In April, H.J. Heinz Co., the world's largest tuna canner, bowed to critics worried about dolphins caught in tuna nets. Its Star-Kist Seafood Co. said it would no longer buy tuna trapped by nets that kill dolphins. Van Camp Seafood Co. and Bumble Bee Seafoods Inc. soon followed suit.