Urged on by environmentalists and hordes of fourth-graders, Ronald McDonald stomped the clamshell burger box flat in 1990. Nine years later, the PS packaging industry has survived, a bit battered but wiser.
On Nov. 1, 1990, McDonald's Corp. sent shock waves through the polystyrene foam industry by announcing that, within 60 days, it would phase out its clamshell box.
In hindsight, the industry should have seen trouble coming. The early 1990s were marked by a surge of environmental interest. Schoolchildren mailed their Filet-O-Fish boxes to McDonald's headquarters. A few cities banned foam outright. In Portland, they even hired a ``Styro-Cop'' who confiscated foam deli takeout containers.
Even so, McDonald's had seemed like the industry's friend — and that made the news even more shocking.
``We were blindsided by it. We had no advance notice that this was coming. McDonald's had seemed to try so hard to make it work,'' said Leora Rosen, vice president of Polyfoam Packers Corp. in Wheeling, Ill.
``Then to throw in the towel made the public draw the wrong conclusions. We were aware all along that we were fighting an uphill battle about misinformation. And McDonald's decision fed into the misperception.''
In 1989, McDonald's tried to bolster the fledgling National Polystyrene Recycling Co. by asking customers in its New England restaurants to separate foam for recycling. The fast-food giant handed out information debunking myths about landfills.
By the summer of 1990, the tide had turned. McDonald's teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund to study ways to reduce solid waste. McDonald's ended up deciding its business was feeding people, not educating them. The company dropped foam in favor of coated paper, saying paper takes up less landfill space than thermoformed PS clamshells.
Industry leaders accused McDonald's of ignoring the facts.
``They were doing it more for a market advantage rather than for science or assistance to the environment,'' said Jon Huntsman, president and chief executive officer of Huntsman Corp.
Huntsman Corp. was a major PS resin supplier in 1990, but later sold that business.
The most-direct losers were McDonald's clamshell suppliers, including Dolco Packaging Corp., Mobil Chemical Co.'s Plastics Division, Genpak Corp. and Amoco Chemical Co.
Dolco lost about 20 percent of its sales, recalled Norman Patterson, vice president of Dolco, now a division of Tekni-Plex Inc. of Somerville, N.J. In 1990, Dolco had been in Chapter 11 reorganization, the result of its parent company's divestiture of its egg business. Dolco still made foam egg trays, but egg consumption was down because of health concerns. Resin prices were high.
``Then we were hit with the McDonald's decision at the same time we were being hit with environmental misconceptions from every angle,'' Patterson said. ``So we had an option. We could close our doors and go away, or we could become educated and proactive, and that's exactly what Dolco and the industry did.''
But in 1990, nobody knew what would happen. Other PS foam sectors braced for fallout. Firms that made transport packaging products — from the end cap holding your new stereo in place to foam peanuts — feared they would get tarred with the same brush. Plastics News quoted one executive as saying, ``The environmentalists have tasted blood and they're going to start to swarm.''
What was the impact? Looking back, industry officials agree most of the damage was to their image, not their bottom lines. McDonald's used between 30 million and 60 million pounds of extruded PS foam — less than 10 percent of the total U.S. market.
Plastic foam cup makers lost out on the gourmet coffee boom, as Starbucks and others chose paper. They've been playing catch-up ever since. On the other hand, McDonald's, after initially planning to drop PS coffee cups, has kept them. McDonald's also continues to use PS breakfast trays.
PS resin prices fell in the months after the clamshell announcement, but they soon began a slow climb back. Mike Levy, director of the Washington-based Polystyrene Packaging Council, points out that the growing market for rigid PS containers for salads and other foods took up much of the slack.
In transport packaging, McDonald's bombshell served as a wake-up call.
``One of the reasons why the polystyrene industry survived the kind of environmental `attitude adjustment' was because our products work so well,'' said Betsy de Campos, executive director of the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers in Crofton, Md. ``We show no negative impact from the McDonald's decision.''
Foamed PS has regained lost ground as the 1990s wind down. In January, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story headlined: ``Walking on eggshells, polystyrene people make a comeback.'' The article said Borders Group has switched from paper to PS peanuts to ship books and compact discs.
Recycling remains a concern, however. De Campos said the recycling rate for the nonfood, transport packaging sector is about 10 percent. Unfortunately, for food-service, the rate is only about 1.5 percent — far lower than the 25 percent goal touted by PS resin companies when they started the National Polystyrene Recycling Co. a decade ago.
PS noodle cups made headlines in Japan and South Korea last year, when reports raised the issue of endocrine disruption. Sales fell and some firms switched to paper. Industry responded, pointing to studies that say the cups are safe.
And that, according to Polyfoam Packers' Rosen, is the moral of the McDonald's story.
``It was a lesson to all of us that we have to be ever-vigilant, really,'' she said. ``I don't think there is any manufacturer in this business that would tell you the whole environmental thing is behind us. There's an awareness that there always could be another shoe to drop.''