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

Emily Dao

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McDonald's

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.

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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Google Donates Money To Climate Denying Organizations

Haider Sarwar

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Google donates money to organizations that deny climate change

On September 22, 2014, an interviewer asked Google Chairman Eric Schmidt why Google was donating money to ALEC, a climate-denying company. Schmidt responded by saying, “I think the consensus within the company was that that was sort of a mistake. And so we’re trying to not do that in the future.” He then affirmed Google’s position on the issue, “And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring. And the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people.”

Today, Google continues to donate money to hundreds of organizations, some of which are known to have lobbied against climate change activism.

Google’s response to the allegations

The tech giant defended its contributions by saying that its collaboration with companies such as CEI and SPN does not mean that Google supports their agendas. Instead, the reason the collaborations are being made is because of Google’s support of technological innovations. These actions and the chairman’s words from five years ago clearly do not match up.

The aforementioned companies that Google collaborates with are notorious for lobbying against climate legislation. CEI was one of the main players in convincing President Trump to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Moreover, SPN recently created the “climate pledge” where they claimed that the world’s climate is actually getting better. These are just some of the companies that Google donates to.

Public opinion on the situation

Critics and environmental activists believe that it is contradictory for a company that openly supports action on global climate change to be donating money to these companies. Google has operated on 100% renewable energy for two years and had urged the White House to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. It is for this reason that some believe that Google is only portraying an image of climate action. On the other hand, some believe that Google is donating to these companies to win them over and stop government regulation on technology.

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator who is a major proponent to climate action, slammed Google. “It ought to be disqualifying to support what is primarily a phony climate-denying front group,” Whitehouse states. He then continues to say that companies should stop collaborating with those who deny climate change. 

It is clear that most environmental activists and individuals see Google’s contradictions in a bad light. Actions that go against words will often lead to obscurity, and Google has made a purposeful commitment to being transparent with the public. Moreover, many believe that Google’s strides in climate action have been lessened by the companies collaborating with a large list of climate-denying organizations. Moving forward, Google might have to stop these donations to regain the trust and support of environmental activists.



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Food Giant Danone Pushes to Restore Biodiversity

Haider Sarwar

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Danone

Danone Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel Faber and the leaders of 19 other companies including L’Oreal, Nestle, and Google have taken initiative to find ways to restore biodiversity in the world’s food systems. “In a nutshell, we have broken the cycle of life,” Faber states at the UN General Assembly. He continues, “And the missing link is the biodiversity in our fields.” Faber is among many other Big Food leaders that believe that there is a looming threat to the food systems that feed most of the world, and they are now ready to face the problem.

Why does Biodiversity matter?

Today, only nine plants account for over half of the world’s crop production. For years, these nine crops have fed the world. However, as populations grow, the biodiversity within these crops quickly dwindles. Due to the high utilization of artificially made pollinators, the plants have no need to adapt to different environments and changes. This comfortability can then result in monocultures, areas where only one crop is grown. This type of farming can be fatal to the productivity of agriculture. 

Deadly organisms are more easily able to infect large areas of plant life due to the similarity of these crops. Biodiversity is needed to sustain, defend, and improve the production of agricultural plants. What’s being done to fix the problem?

One Planet Business for Biodiversity

Twenty companies have banded together to implement regenerative farming to heal the biodiversity problem. Regenerative farming strives to reverse the effects of climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring biodiversity. With a short term goal of identifying meaningful solutions that support regenerative farming. The group will strive to deter from the reliance of monocultures and will, in turn, create the groundwork for the much needed restoration for other fragile ecosystems.

The One Planet Business for Biodiversity, as they have named themselves, have already begun to strategize on different ways to achieve better biodiversity. Next year, they will reconvene at the UN Convention on Biodiversity to present their ideas. 

For now, these companies plan to work closely with farmers to promote regenerative farming. Danone CEO Faber claims that “The missing link between the wild diversity and wildlife, and what we do every day, is what happens in the field.” Moreover, the incentivization of organic soil and pollinators over chemicals will be advanced. This group expects to reintroduce the biodiversity in crops by 2030.

Win-Win situation

It is clear that the increase of biodiversity will lead to a net positive for agricultural production and the health of many species, but how does this help the companies that take part in this initiative? 

Today’s generation already gravitates to locally sourced food choices; people are more stringent on the types of foods they eat and where the food comes from. Furthermore, more science conscious CEOs have come forward in declaring their recognition of environmental issues. The investment of cleaner soil and pollination strategies put forth an incentive for people to purchase food and/or products from these companies.

For example, in March 2018, Danone’s North American operation launched a $6 million initiative. This initiative pushed for healthier soil, reduced chemicals, and the promotion of biodiversity. While this initiative did provide food systems with extra sustainability, it also caught the attention of other companies such as Ohio’s MVP Dairy to work with Danone in creating more sustainable foods. 

The creation of One Planet Business for Biodiversity is one step towards reaching the challenging goal of reworking our food systems. If done efficiently, the production of food systems around the world can be cultivated in a healthier manner and provide benefits for both plant life and humans.



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Unilever Reimagines The Future of Plastic Packaging

Avery Maloto

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Unilever

While the world continues to ban the production of single-use plastics, many large companies fail to recognize other leading producers of plastic pollution. Unfortunately, most brand-name companies continue to package merchandise in newly-created plastics. Over time, the plastics accumulate. With only 9% of all circulating plastics being recycled, the remaining billions of tons of plastics to be left in fragile ecosystems or improperly disposed of in landfills. And, with companies still to use these new plastics for packaging purposes, the problem only continues to exist. However, one company recently took a stand. Unilever, the maker of Ben and Jerry’s, Dove, Lipton and more, announced its commitment to going green. 

By 2025, Unilever has promised to try and accomplish the following:

  1. Halve the amount of virgin plastic it uses in packaging
  2. Help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells

What is the company doing?

As a parent company to over 400 brands, Unilever currently uses over 700,000 tons of plastic annually. In order to away from single-use plastic, the company’s new tactics incorporate a “less plastic, better plastic, and no plastic” way of thinking. During its journey to cut their plastic usage in half, the consumer goods giant will begin to offer a wider variety of reusable, refillable, and recyclable packaging. As a result, their strategy brings to the table several innovative alternatives to common virgin plastic packaging. Some of which are already implemented in Unilever’s green production line. 

Highlighted Successes

  • In 2017

    • Unilever incorporated MuCell™ technology its Dove hand wash bottles to avoid using an excess of 304 tons of plastic.
  • In 2018

    • Unilever put up a three-liter bottle of Omo laundry detergent on the market in Brazil. The detergent’s formula was dilutable in order to reduce the volume of plastic by 75%.
    • Unilever opened up a facility that uses breakthrough chemical processes (CreasSolve®) in order to recycle sachets into safe, reusable, and high-quality polymers. The company began its research in this field in 2011.
  • In January 2019

    • Unilever announced its participation in Loop™, an innovative waste-free shopping and delivery model for reusable packaging innovations and refillable product formats
  • In September 2019

    • Sainsbury started an initiative to use returnable glass bottles to sell milk and carbonated beverages.

A Realistic Model for Plastic Use

While plastic is heavily incorporated into modern-day lifestyles, the truth is that a “no plastic” world is difficult to achieve. However, Unilever is taking on a realistic vision for the future. 

In a statement with Unilever’s chief executive, Alan Jope, he notes that “Plastic has its place but that place is not in the environment”. Touching base on the company’s future progress in sustainability, Jope states that “[Unilever’s] starting point has to be design, reducing the amount of plastic we use, and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources”. Refreshingly, Unilever’s actions continue to match their words.

Adopting Circular Thinking

During its process of going green, Unilever altered its production strategy to incorporate circular thinking. As a result, the company continuously takes strides in creating a circular economy for plastic recycling. By utilizing such an economical system, the company will be able to mitigate waste and pollution production. Instead, it will strive to keep products and materials in use, as well as regenerating natural systems. 

However, Unilever must focus on several different interdependent areas in order to do so. Working at such a diverse level, the company incorporates initiatives ranging from politics to infrastructure design. On the political side, Unilever is working with governments in order to create an environment that can enable the creation and use of a circular economy. At the same time, the company is exploring new business models to capitalize on economical trends. 

Conclusion

As one of the leading causes of plastic pollution, packaging continues to accumulate in landfills at an alarming rate. Fortunately, Unilever’s commitment to going green is yielding inspiring results such as preventing the use of billions of tons of unneeded plastics.

However, the company knows it cannot finish the battle against plastic pollution alone. Instead, it believes that other companies should take initiative in order to create the systemic change needed to catalyze a circular economy. Whether advocating for more companies to engage in policy discussions with governments or to invest in innovation, Unilever continuously shows unwavering dedication. 

Hopefully, others will look up to Unilever and follow their lead.



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