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The history of plastic: is McDonalds responsible for the disposable plastic problem we are in? Packaging Design

This article comes from our partners below Dieline

This is the second part of Dieline’s series “The History of Plastic”. You will find the first chapter on the invention of disposable life Here.


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could point our fingers at a single unit and hold them responsible for the current plastic disaster in our world? At the very least, it could help us direct our feeling of frustration at the spread of disposable cutlery, pulling straws out of turtles, and lavish plastic-lined packaging to be thrown in the trash. But at best, it could help us learn exactly how we got into this catastrophic mess. We were able to understand where we went wrong, how we could possibly improve it and how we can avoid these kinds of mistakes again.

It almost sounds too convenient to have only one party responsible for our society’s current confidence in single-use plastics. And we don’t want to point our fingers, but it’s hard to ignore a massively influential company that isn’t just a player in the plastic waste game in the big business – it may have inspired normalization and accepted use of single use plastic.

Company Vs. Individuals

If the emphasis on sustainable, environmentally friendly, environmentally friendly and / or environmentally conscious living has grown in importance, you are right. Consumers are willing to pay more for these optionsand it’s not just a goal; consumer do Pay more for these options with a CPG growth of 50% for products with a sustainability market.

But, dear consumer, buy them all Cutlery from avocado pits You want and have a reusable straw in your back pocket – it still doesn’t bump. The real culprit when it comes to plastic isn’t you or me, it’s big business The worst offenders produce millions of tons of it every year. A real difference should come from the companies and brands that primarily produce a large part of the plastic waste. After all, the first part of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is easy to reducethe use of anything that could produce garbage in the first place. It’s not just a catchy saying. Instead, reuse and recycling are second and third in the priority list to minimize waste.

As Greenpeace’s Abigail Aguilar told National Geographic“We believe that those who manufacture and promote disposable plastics play an important role in the whole problem.”

The rise of fast food and the glamorous disposable plastic life

In 1948, Maurice and Richard McDonald opened a hamburger restaurant in San Bernardino, California. Ray Kroc was the supplier of milk shake machines at McDonald’s and finally convinced the McDonald brothers to choose a franchise model with their little joint. Ray became the first franchisee in 1952 and finally bought it out in 1961.

Around the time McDonalds came on stage Disposable life was all the rage (if you haven’t seen our piece about this 1950s trend yet, learn all about it Here). Throwing away dishes and cutlery after dinner was considered glamorous. Wash the dishes? Please, it was a 40s thing! With disposable items such as plates and cutlery, people were able to regain the precious hours they had spent washing and drying their Fiestaware.

No, McDonald’s didn’t invent plastic or the concept of fast food (we did) white lock thank you for our kitchen on the go), but over time it has had the most financial success in the United States from any other fast food restaurant. By 1963, they opened their 500th location in Toledo, Ohio, which were all owned by separate franchisees, but all operated with the strictest standardized processes to ensure a consistently high level of quality. Today there are McDonald’s in over 100 countries with more than 37,000 locations. This kind of success is the epitome of the American dream and in turn creates a certain influence as other restaurants follow similar business models and hope for the same. The company is highly valued as “a symbol of American business as well as a significant owner of American real estate. ”

Seinfeld's Jason Alexander sings about the joys of McDLT and its styrofoam packaging.

Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander sings about the joys of McDLT and its styrofoam packaging.

According to CBC News“The growth – both of McDonald’s and the fast food industry – has changed the way people eat. In 1970, according to the US Department of Agriculture, Americans did not have about a quarter of their meals at home. By 2012 that percentage had risen to 43 percent. ”They report similar results from almost every other country where McDonald’s has performed, citing that 10 percent of meals are eaten out of home in India, compared to only 3 percent in 2003 .

It wasn’t the first fast food chain, but it did pave the way for the industry. And since McDonalds has overlapped with Throwaway Living, this has changed our world significantly. The fast food concept at McDonald’s wasn’t just about reducing costs – it was about maximizing the profit in this reduced experience of eating. They offered counter service (so no servers were needed) and had burgers cooked in advance just to keep them warm with heat lamps. Ray Kroc hated the wasted space between cans or glass bottles of milk. In the 1960s, he asked the dairy industry to use plastic-lined boxes instead. This packaging quickly became the national standard and offered an easier, cheaper, and more space-saving option for shipping (you probably opened a small milk carton yourself at school).

And of course there were things like disposable plastic silver that made it unnecessary for someone to wash these annoying dishes.

In addition, plastic cup lids and straws made it even easier for customers to take something to go, while plastic toys wrapped in plastic added an additional draw for families with children in Happy Meals. Styrofoam containers were lightweight – meaning shipping was cheaper – and allowed guests to easily take their food with them. This incredibly profitable fast food chain pursued a toss-it mentality that was undoubtedly an example of similar restaurants.

Power to the people

It may feel like we can’t change what huge companies like this do. McDonalds had system-wide sales of over $ 100 billion in 2019 So what does it matter what the fans or the haters say?

As it turns out, it’s pretty important.

In the 1980s, consumers began to criticize McDonalds for using these styrofoam clamshell containers, the lightweight, terrible thing for the planet. While the restaurant chain’s packaging was initially made of paper, They probably switched to styrofoam because of their cost efficiency. By the end of the decade Styrofoam bans began to come into force, although McDonald’s environmental department insisted on polystyrene ”aerates the floor. ”

Above all, consumers didn’t want anything to do with it. More and more people chose the products because of their environmental impact and wanted polystyrene to be used. McDonald’s donated money to environmental organizations as Hail Mary to continue using the packaging of their choice, but they were eventually advised to change their business.

Instead of making extensive changes first, they took small steps –none of them seemed to satisfy the public.

First, they replaced the CFCs in the container (the blowing agent used during production) as there were reports that contributed to ozone depletion. As a basic environmental group,Ronald McToxic campaign“- From picketing in restaurants to sending shells back to headquarters – McDonalds introduced incinerators. Well, Ronald McToxic quickly became” McPuff “. By 1989 Even school children were done with the brandand founded a group called “Kids Against Polystyrene”.

In 1990, McDonald’s finally agreed to stop using foam for burger packaging. They continued to use it for other items such as cups in the coming years it wasn’t until 2018 that they made a promise to eliminate it from their global markets.

More recently, consumers have asked companies to switch from plastic straws to paper straws as simply as possible. McDonalds in the UK –1.8 million straws are used here every day– suit followed. The brand states that worldwide About 22% of their packaging remains in plastic for reasons of function or food safety, but they aim to reduce plastic wherever they can (although they don’t give further details about theirs Packaging and recycling Page).

McDonald’s only seems to play a part in these examples because they are in a situation where they can no longer afford the bad advertising. After the decision to get rid of styrofoam in 1990, for example the company’s general counsel, Shelby Yastrow, even said“The clamshell package was the symbol everyone was looking forward to. We knew if we got rid of this thing it would be like pulling forty thorns off our paw. ”

But why doesn’t McDonald’s try to show the way with innovations instead of reluctantly moving towards more environmentally friendly packaging? People like Amy’s kitchen, Super duper, and Burgerville All have compostable packaging – why not the golden sheets?

At least McDonald’s is working to develop. Aside from their goal too have sustainable packaging by 2025they have taken part in exciting, environmentally conscious ventures. In 2018, they teamed up with Starbucks for the NextGen Cup ChallengeMillions of dollars so entrepreneurs can try to find a new, compostable coffee mug. And last year they organized a 10-day experiment in Berlin, where they opened a plastic-free restaurant, in which waffle cups for ketchup containers, wooden cutlery instead of disposable plastic containers and burger packaging made of grass (!) Were used instead of paper.

“There’s a lot in environmentally friendly packaging” they stood on their website. “We have to comply with the upcoming regulations (a ban on many single-use plastic items in the European Union will come into force in 2021). We want our customers to know that we care about the environment. Above all, we want to create a more innovative and better McDonald’s. “

They saw this popup as an opportunity to start a discussion about what worked and what didn’t (it turned out that the waffle cups required a different shape for their chicken nuggets, and half of the guests found the wooden utensils tasted good). good wood). This temporary Berlin restaurant states that they know they need to make progress in using disposable plastics, even though they said they are not making any significant changes yet.

But imagine if they did. Imagine the fire that Ray Kroc had to save money in 1956 would be the same fire that McDonald’s executives had today to remove plastic waste from their restaurants around the world. Nobody says it would be easy, and nobody says it will be cheap, but it would undoubtedly affect every other restaurant out there doing the same.

If McDonald’s hadn’t clung to disposable plastic, another restaurant would have done it. They are not the only reason why single-use plastics have entered our oceans and overtaken our landfills, but they are at least somewhat complicit and have the power (both financially and influential) to do something positive about them.

McDonald’s has changed the world with its approach to eating and embracing Throwaway Living – will it be amplified and changed again?


This article from our partners below Dieline

This is the second part of Dieline’s series: The history of plastic. You will find the first chapter on the invention of disposable life Here.



By Theresa Christine Johnson

Theresa entered the world of design through The Dieline. With a background in writing and journalism, she has a passion for discovering and nurturing human connections. Her work for The Dieline is a constant journey to deeply understand all facets of the design process and to examine what makes designers tick. Theresa’s writing made her snorkel between the tectonic plates in Iceland, ride through a rural Brazilian city, and drive a squid art car in Burning Man with Susan Sarandon as part of a funeral procession for Timothy Leary (long story). If she doesn’t write, she’s planning her next trip or taking too many photos of her cat.

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