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McDonald’s gets called out for plastic pollution. Will it actually change?

McDonald’s gets called out for plastic pollution. Will it actually change?

Emily Dao
McDonald's sustainability projects new include two new renewables initiatives.

While McDonald’s celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Happy Meal, two girls from Southampton England were busy drafting a petition. Caitlin and Ella, 7 and 9 years old respectively, urged the fast-food chain to stop giving out plastic toys. They vocalized their thoughts through a Change.org petition, saying: 

“We like to go eat at Burger King and McDonald’s, but children only play with the plastic toys they give us for a few minutes before they get thrown away and harm animals and pollute the sea. We want anything they give us to be sustainable so we can protect the planet for us and for future generations … It’s not enough to make recyclable plastic toys—big, rich companies shouldn’t be making toys out of plastic at all.” 

As of the time of this writing, the petition has garnered over 391,000 signatures, with a goal of reaching 500,000. The virality of the petition and a feature on “War on Plastics” practically forced a response from McDonald’s.

McDonald’s Pledges to Act

In response, McDonald’s has pledged to be more sustainable in the coming year. The company announced it would reduce the number of plastic toys given out by 60% in the next six months (in the UK).

Though McDonald’s has issued a public apology to Caitlin and Ella, it has made no promises about a plastic reduction in the United States or any other country for that matter—but it’s also not like McDonald’s hasn’t made promises before.

McDonald’s Sustainability Record

McDonald’s has set sustainability targets in the past. Just last November it announced it would strive to achieve 100% sustainable consumer packaging and recycling by 2025. As a part of this plan, McDonald’s phased out all harmful foam packaging by the end of 2018.

McDonald’s executive Francesca DeBiase said this environmental shift was largely due to consumers’ desire for businesses to take environmental responsibility.

“Our customers have told us that packaging waste is the top environmental issue they would like us to address,” DeBiase said. “Our ambition is to make change our customers want and to use less packaging, sourced responsibly and designed to be taken care of after use.” 

Clearly, businesses do care about what customers have to say, particularly if their financial bottom line depends on it.

However, the company’s track record is far from clean either. The sheer amount of food McDonald’s sells produce a staggering amount of waste. To be precise, McDonald’s produces 1.5 millions tons of waste annually. Given this, many believe the company still has a long way to go.

McDonald’s Tackles Climate, Energy Efficiency, and Health Concerns

Last year, McDonald’s committed to climate initiatives that will significantly reduce greenhouse gases in the next 11 years. Along with packaging, the company will also be aiming for more sustainable beef production. It would accomplish this by changing how cattle are fed and which soil farmers use.

The fast-food giant also has a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions drastically. McDonald’s plans to switch to more energy efficient kitchen appliances, such as LED light bulbs. In fact, just those three targeted areas collectively account for roughly 64% of McDonald’s emissions

By implementing these changes, the establishment expects to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by some 36%, equivalent to 150 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Coupled with these new proposals for change, McDonald’s also hopes to achieve more sustainability in health. It wants to do so by:

  • Eliminating artificial preservatives from their American burger menu.
  • Source more than 730 million cage-free eggs in 2019.
  • Increase the majority of sustainably sourced McCafe coffee in the United States.

Is this a case of greenwashing?

Despite this rollout of green initiatives, many critics are skeptical. Many accuse McDonald’s of greenwashing or manipulating customers by painting itself as more sustainable and ethical than it actually is.

Since 1997, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has dubbed the company “McCruelty” for their treatment of animals. Disturbing videos depicting cows and chickens being brutally slaughtered for the restaurant continue to surface on the internet. While McDonald’s committed to employing less cruel slaughtering methods for chickens, the method will not go into effect until 2024.

See Also

Chrissie Hynde of the rock band The Pretenders has actively sided with PETA in its fight for improved animal welfare. While she recognized McDonald’s new pledge as a step in the right direction, she didn’t praise its efforts.

Millions of birds are scalded alive for the production of McDonald's signature McNuggets.
Millions of birds are scalded alive for the production of McDonald’s signature McNuggets.

“McDonald’s pledge will help reduce some horrific suffering, but millions of birds will still be scalded alive for McNuggets until the policy takes effect in 2024, and the company still raises chickens with crippled legs and deformities,” Hynde said. “Other chains have enacted much stronger protections already and have broadened their base by offering vegan options.”

Also, because McDonald’s is one of the leading buyers of beef in the world, many believe the company’s new beef sustainability initiative won’t be enough to significantly reduce environmental damage.

Many experts say meat consumption heavily exacerbates effects of climate change due to livestock emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Conclusions

As one of the world’s largest fast food chains in the world with 37,000 restaurants in 120 markets, McDonald’s needs to be accountable for its environmental impact.

Consumers have caught onto where McDonald’s currently stands, as the fast-food conglomerate contributes to the emissions problem and feeds plastic pollution. Now, the company has pledged to act and appears to get the cue.

Still, promises are easy, and the fast-food giant has made a lot of them already. The important assessment will be evaluating whether the company will actually be able to achieve its targets. Companies like Starbucks, while having a similar dedication to reducing their environmental impact, have missed sustainability targets repeatedly. Will McDonald’s be the same?

Only time will tell.

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