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McDonalds and the Polystyrene Connections

Let's have a look at the relationship between McDonald's and Polystyrene

History of McDonald’s

The first McDonald’s restaurant was founded in 1948 in California by the brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald. They basically invented “fast food”.

Cheap food and fast service were possible thanks to two principles. The self-service counter eliminated the need for waiters (reduced costs); and hamburgers were cooked in advance, wrapped, and warmed under heat lamps.

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Ray Kroc was McDonald’s supplier of milk shake appliances and was intrigued by the amount of milk shakes they were selling. Ray convinced the brothers to go for a franchise model and he became the first franchisee.

Ray bought the brothers out and the rest is history. Today, McDo has around 37,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries.

History of Single Use or Disposable Packaging

The history of single use packaging and fast food are linked, and McDonald’s wrote fast food history.

People started using paper cups for hot beverages in 1930. Paper cup with handles were invented in 1936 and lids for coffee cups were invented in the 1950s.

The McDonald’s restaurant started using single use packaging in 1948. It had many advantages: no need for dishwashing and dishwashers; no more storage of glasses, cutlery and plates; no need to have table staff and waiters; no broken plates and glasses; and no theft of table ware by customers.

first packaging of mcdonalds
The First Packaging of McDonalds
paper cups mcdonalds
Milk Shake Appliance supplied by Ray Krok
mcdonalds paper cups
McDonald’s first milk shake cups were made from paper

Polystyrene Packaging

The use of polystyrene as food packaging material is linked to the rise of fast food, and McDo played a key role in the rise of polystyrene as a mainstream material for food packaging.

Dow Chemical invented the Styrofoam process (extruded polystyrene foam) in 1941 and trademarked the brand Styrofoam. The mainstream use of polystyrene started after WWII. Expanded polystyrene had two main advantages: insulation and light weight.

Price and Houston patented a method for making foamed polystyrene cups in 1957. The cups could be held while boiling water was being poured into the cup. This was the birth of polystyrene cups.

The expanded polystyrene sandwich box, the “clamshell”, was invented by Jon Huntsman Sr in 1974. Jon was frustrated with the paper packaging in which hamburgers were served as they didn’t keep the food warm and the juice leaked.

Huntsman knew that polystyrene and foam plastics would keep food fresh longer and avoid leaks better than paper packaging.

Jon invented the “clamshell” in his home and pitched McDonald’s with his new invention. McDo didn’t respond positively so he went to plan B and pitched Burger King. Burger Kind agreed on a few trials and the success was immediate. Besides keeping the food warm and avoiding leaks, sales increased where the clamshell was used. Eventually, McDo realised their mistakes and bought their way in. Huntsman died a billionaire. McDonald’s massively switched to foam packaging in the 1980s.

Huntsman said:

“Each individual man and woman has an inherent ability to lift themselves out of their current situation and move ahead. I always loved to put in long hours and come up with creative ideas like the first plates, bowls, dishes and Big Mac containers…I would go up and down grocery aisles thinking up new ways for inventions and creativities.”

mcdonalds plastic packaging policy
Expanded Polystyrene Sandwich Boxes, the Clamshell
cardboard boxes mcdonalds
Cardboard hamburger boxes were introduced in the 1970s.
mcdonald expanded polystyrene coffee cup
Expanded Polystyrene Coffee Cup (circa 1980)

McDonald’s Plastic Strategy

McDo phased out polystyrene sandwich boxes (clamshell) and announced they would replace them with paper in 1990.

McDo stopped using foam packaging for hot beverages in 2012 after receiving pressure from the NGO “As You Sow”.

The last EPS packaging used by McDo were the cold drinks container, but McDo announced that they will replace them by the end of 2018.

McDo recently announced their 2025 goals to improve packaging and reduce waste: 100% of the guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources; and guest packaging will be recycled in 100% of McDonald’s restaurants.

McDonald's In-Store Waste Collections Station
McDonald’s In-Store Waste Collection Station

50% of McDonald’s guest packaging comes from renewable, recycled or certified sources since 2017.

64% of McDonald’s fiber-based packaging comes from certified or recycled sources since 2016.

McDonald’s joined Starbucks & Closed Loop Partners in 2018 to develop a recyclable and/or compostable cup. The “NextGen Cup Challenge” was launched to encourage the development of a global recyclable and/or compostable cup solution in collaboration with Closed Loop Partners.

The NextGen Cup Challenge will be open to supply chain leaders, innovators, solution providers and anyone with a promising solutions to recover single use cups. McDonald’s has committed $5 million to the challenge.


  • McDo has been very conscious of their impact on the environment.
  • McDo is closing the loop: they brought EPS (expanded polystyrene) to fame and are phasing it out now completely.
  • Companies like McDo making a pledge is not enough. Recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behaviours play a determinant role. To what extend can a company like McDo influence these?
  • McDo’s pledge is not to recycle 100% of their packaging … it’s that 100% of their restaurant will recycle the waste or use recycled content 😉 …and in fact what they mean is that 100 % of their restaurant will organise and promote waste sorting. It’s not because you sort the waste that it’s actually being recycled.



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