Polystyrene foam has taken another body blow from McDonald's Corp., which famously abandoned the PS clamshell burger package way back in 1990.
Today's target: the PS foam hot-drink cup.
Last week McDonald's announced that it will eliminate the use of PS hot-beverage cups in the U.S., following a successful large-scale test of double-wall paper cups.
The news will help expand the growing number of PS food-service packaging bans that have been popping up around the country, with a heavy concentration on the West Coast. After all, if McDonald's can find a workable paper coffee cup, other quick-serve restaurants will have a tough time arguing that they need to stick with PS foam.
PS resin and food-service product suppliers will argue that McDonald's made the wrong decision. They'll say that PS foam is a superior choice for the environment — it saves energy and natural resources, and it's just as recyclable as paper. Those arguments are absolutely right. But, once again, they don't matter.
One reason they don't matter is because much of the public still has a negative perception of PS foam that's based on outdated or exaggerated claims related to chemical safety.
Another reason: Much of the movement to ban PS foam these days focuses on marine debris, which is a major issue in parts of the United States. To activists who are concerned about plastic in the oceans, it doesn't matter if PS has a superior sustainability record to paper. That doesn't keep it out of the ocean and off the beaches.
PS cups have stuck around for a long time in the hot-drink market because of their superior performance. They keep drinks warm and protect consumers from scalding-hot liquids. But other major fast-food and coffee chains successfully switched over to paper cups without a significant backlash from consumers.
The pressure on McDonald's to switch away from PS foam cups wasn't nearly as publicly visible as what the company faced back in 1990.
There's an entire generation of young adults who don't remember that McDonald's burgers used to be packaged in PS foam clamshells. A couple of decades from now, we'll be able to say the same thing about PS foam coffee cups.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of "The Plastics Blog."