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Fast Food Outlet in Pickle as Activists Attack Foam Cups

Remember when most “to-go” coffee came in convenient, insulated foam cups?  Remember when McDonald’s served food in foam clamshells that kept your meal nice and warm?  Those were the days, my friend — lost to political correctness.

Today, consumers often burn their hands holding paper cups filled with hot beverages that leak along the rim because the tops are not as snug-fitting as they are on foam cups.  The politically correct solution has been to add paper sleeves around the cup, which mitigates hot fingers, but doesn’t keep coffee hot or prevent leaking.

There are, fortunately, a few holdouts — companies that still use foam cups, like Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald’s.  These companies know that consumers appreciate the benefits of foam — more formally known as polystyrene foam.

Activists would love to see regulations eliminate foam cups completely, but absent the power to do that, they apply public pressure.  During the 1990s, activists at the Environmental Defense Fund launched a public relations campaign against McDonald’s, generating bad PR that placed the fast food giant “in a pickle.”  McDonald’s responded by eliminating foam packaging for their sandwiches, but not their coffee cups.

Activists continue to press for McDonald’s and others to eliminate foam cups as many politically correct coffee shops have already done.  For example, one activist group called “As You Sow” has drafted a proposal for McDonald’s shareholders that calls on the company to phase out polystyrene cups.

Activists have long claimed that foam cups are less energy efficient than paper cups because they were not recycled as much.  More recently, they have levied the charge that the cups are dangerous because they are made with a supposed carcinogenic chemical— styrene.   They are wrong on both counts.

First consider the impact on energy usage.  Earlier this year, the research group Franklin Associates released findings from their life-cycle assessment of polystyrene packaging and alternative paper products.  Such assessments attempt to measure the impact that products have on the environment during their entire lifetime — from cradle to grave.

The company found that the average 16-ounce polystyrene cup uses a third less energy, produces 50 percent less solid waste by volume, and releases a third less of so-called “green house gases” than does a 16-ounce paper cup with a sleeve. Over their lifecycles, polystyrene packaging products require 20 to 30 percent less water than do paper alternatives.