America’s highest-grossing fast-food chain will soon be eliminating one of the staples of to-go food packaging: foam plastic. The company recently announced it will eliminate foam packaging, currently 2 percent of its packaging by weight, by the end of 2018.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS), often known by the brand name Styrofoam, is commonly used in food packaging because it’s lightweight, cheap to manufacture and good at temperature control (both hot and cold). But it’s come under fire in environmental circles because EPS is a frequent source of marine debris and has a very limited recycling market, especially compared to paper and other plastics.

Cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., have already banned EPS packaging, meaning McDonald’s was already offering an alternative packaging in many of its locations.

A Long Process

If this news sounds familiar, it isn’t the first time McDonald’s has targeted the elimination of foam packaging. Back in 1990, the company announced it was replacing foam food packaging with paper packaging. It stopped using foam packaging for hot beverages in 2012 after receiving pressure from As You Sow, a nonprofit that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility. The only remaining foam used in McDonald’s stores today is for cold beverages.

In its new announcement, McDonald’s is pledging to source 100 percent of its fiber-based packaging from certified or recycled sources by 2020. Currently, that number is at 64 percent, up from 9.3 percent in 2012.

One area where McDonald’s has yet to weigh in on is allowing customers to reuse their cups. The company started selling reusable coffee cups in France in 2012, but they have yet to be rolled out in the U.S. The company also has no official policy on bringing in and filling your own cups while paying for coffee or a soda.

Single-use packaging is one of the big eco-challenges in the restaurant industry, as it typically isn’t designed with recyclability in mind. Besides EPS, other products with limited recycling markets include plastic cutlery, straws and paper napkins. Even in the case where restaurants provide an in-house option for recycling or composting these products, because so much of the food and drinks are served via take-out, in-store waste diversion serves a limited purpose.

McDonald’s Isn’t Alone

McDonald’s is not the only restaurant that has faced criticism for its packaging, or taken efforts to improve its sustainability. Starbucks is frequently in the news regarding the recyclability of its single-use cups, and in 2015 promised to make a 100 percent recyclable coffee cup. The company uses 10 percent recycled paper content in its U.S. cups, compared with 50 percent recycled plastic content in its European cups.

For those debating that single-use packaging needs to be more sustainable, consider that manufacturing packaging from recycled content is often more expensive than using virgin material. One of the popular reasons people choose fast food is because it’s less expensive, and restaurants would likely pass any increased packaging costs down to consumers.

Feature image courtesy of McDonald’s

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.