By Donella Meadows
–November 8, 1990–
“This is a case study for the business schools,” said an environmentalist on the day McDonald’s renounced its polystyrene foam hamburger package.
In the November 2 New York Times where that quote appeared there were actually three case studies side by side. Together they raise deep questions about the environmental awareness, responsibility, and power of corporations.
The first case study was the McDonald’s decision, which will reduce the nation’s production and disposal of polystyrene foam by 37,500 tons a year — more if other fast-food companies follow.
McDonald’s has been under pressure to get rid of foam packaging since the ozone hole was discovered. The company switched to foam blown with gases that are less destructive to the ozone layer, but that did not satisfy customers. They pointed out that the plastic containers still originate in oil wells, still go through processing that emits hazardous chemicals, and still end up immortalized in dumps.
Kids sent ketchup-smeared plastic clamshells to McDonald’s headquarters. Environmentalists publicized the fact that Burger King wraps its burgers in cardboard. McDonald’s found itself spending millions trying to defeat state and local plastics packaging bans.
Finally the company gave in. Said Edward H. Rensi, president of McDonald’s U.S.A., “Our customers just don’t feel good about it, so we’re changing. We already knew we could switch to paper and make money.” Said an unhappy Joseph W. Bow, president of the Foodservice and Packaging Institute, “McDonald’s bowed to public pressure. We want to see a free economy where materials are used based on their advantages, not on the wishes of powerful groups.”
The business students could discuss whether Mr. Bow had in fact just witnessed a free economy at work. And which powerful group’s wishes had won out. And to whose advantage it is to consume resources and create trash in order to keep a hamburger warm for a few minutes. Those are not easy questions. It would be a hot discussion.
On the same day the Amoco Corporation also made an environmental announcement. To meet the 1992 standards of the Clean Air Act, the company said, it would join other companies in selling a cleaner-burning gasoline (which includes an oxygenating additive that reduces emissions of carbon monoxide). Amoco said it would also begin to take back used motor oil and reprocess it into lubricating oil or boiler fuel. Amoco was an industry leader, it reminded us proudly, in removing lead from gasoline Said Robert J. Rauscher, a vice president of Amoco, “We will continue to move in an environmentally pro-active manner.”
Business students could launch a fruitful inquiry into whether it is pro-active for an oil company to take steps only when government requires them, especially if it lobbied government not to require them. They could ask what prevented Amoco from making cleaner gasoline before?
The third case study from the same paper is a double-page advertisement by “the makers of the DRINK BOX.” The drink box is the aseptic single-serving “brickpack” in which many beverages are now sold. Its laminated mixture of aluminum, cardboard, and plastic is unseparable and unrecyclable. Packaging a single serving of anything requires much more material than packaging a larger quantity.
Apparently its makers had been reading McDonald’s handwriting on the wall. “Drink boxes do more than help improve the quality of our lives,” say large letters on the top of one page. “They help improve the quality of our environment,” says the next page.
Underneath are pictures of American GIs drinking milk from drink boxes in the “torrid Saudi desert,” leading one to wonder how Saudi Arabia is dealing with the sudden onslaught of trash from 210,000 Americans. The ad claims that drink boxes are the most space and weight efficient beverage containers, that shipping them uses 25 percent less fuel than most conventional packing, that they can be recycled, and that they make up only 3/100 of one percent of the total solid waste stream.
Before the business students get to that one, I’m going to turn my environmental studies students loose on finding its factual distortions. I’d ask business students to compare it with the old McDonald’s statements telling us the merits of polystyrene hamburger packaging. And the oil company ads telling us the disasters that would ensue if lead were taken out of gasoline. I’d ask them to analyze the strategy of spending millions of dollars to try to convince us that what business has chosen to do for its own reasons is best for us and the environment.
McDonald’s and Amoco have been responsive to consumers and the government. To be more than responsive, to be responsible (and pro-active) business will have to learn to ask about any product or service the crucial question its customers are learning to ask. The question is not: What will make a profit? The question is: Do we really need this? Is it worth trashing a planet for?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990