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July 02, 2008



Excellent exploration of the issue, but I feel that you may have missed one point: Paper cups aren't green, by any stretch of the imagination.

Similar to a Starbucks cup, they're a fusion of paper and plastic that does not decompose well.

I'd say McDonald's may have a point. Especially if the energy input in production is lower, styrofoam may win.


The styrofoam cup allows for McDonald's to more effectively compete with Chick Fil-a, who uses styrofoam cups for all of their beverages including their popular sweet tea. This competition is also seen with McDonald's introduction of the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich which also competes with the original Chick Fil-a sandwich. It appears that the decisions to use styrofoam here is simply driven by marketing.

Mike Martinez

To answer the question about why McDonald's uses polystyrene foam, there are two reasons: one is based on the environment, and one is based on product performance.

If you compare polystyrene foam foodservice products to readily available alternative products, polystyrene foam actually has less of an impact on the environment. I invite readers to contact me for detailed information and copies of life cycle studies that back up this point.

As for product performance, polystyrene foam insulates better than other cups, which makes it a preferred container. Let's think about iced tea, which is typically dispensed at room temperature, while soft drinks are often dispensed at the mid-thirty degree range. I went to the McDonald's down the street and measured the temperature in four 32-ounce cups. The tea was dispensed at an average of 66 degrees while the Coca-Cola was dispensed at an average of 36 degrees. Since iced tea is dispensed at a much higher temperature, the ice melts quicker and dilutes the tea unless the cup insulates well, thereby preventing rapid dilution. Foam not only is the best overall choice for the environment, but also has many performance benefits for all beverages and specifically iced tea.

Please feel free to contact me at or call me at (770) 207-8890 for more details.

Hallie Forcinio

In this article and many others seen in both the popular and trade press, the use of the term Styrofoam is incorrect. Styrofoam, a tradename owned by Dow Chemical, refers to foam produts it produces primarily for construction applications and, I believe, some craft applications. The Dart website does not mention the term Styrofom except to note that they do NOT use it and it is a Dow trademark. Thanks for letting me set the record straight.


I appreciate your concern for the environment. It is agreed that Fast Food companies have a long way to go before they come out looking "green." If you are interested in this topic, then you should check out what dogwood alliance is doing at Peace.

Susan Trepagnier

I think I'll weigh in here since I seem to purchase one of these teas every to every couple days. Local McDonalds stores have used paper and plastic cups when they ran out of the Tea cups recently. I hated them. My tea didn't last nearly as long as it usually did, but most of all - I drink tea throughout the day and make it when at my house. I reuse this cup when I get home, the paper cups wouldn't hold up to this - the plastic weeps all over everything and then I need a napkin, or two, to wrap around the cup.
Maybe I'm totally off base here, but although I'm in an environmental position at work, I hope McDonalds will continue to use this cup.


---"It's true that in the U.S., food service cups of any material are not recycled significantly. We look to optimize life cycle impacts as opposed to only "end-of-life" impacts."---

How long is this life cycle of the polystyrene cups? Is there a death cycle that factors into McD's calculations?


As long as people purchase food and beverages in throwaway containers, they are supporting an unsustainable business and practicing an unsustainable lifestyle.

Dave Ruth

I've been upset with McDonalds and others that I cannot bring in my own reusable cup: they will fill a throwaway coffee cup, pour it into my cup, and throw their cup in the trash.


Since the author has to approve these, please
just delete this and the previous. They contribute nothing.


how about simply putting a recycle bin in every mcdonalds location?? let's not turn a blind eye to the fact that polystyrene is harmful to the environment, no matter how you look at it. the raw materials to create polystyrene could be put to much better use than this. it seems like the real issue is that mcdonalds is counting on people throwing away the cups in a regular trash bin, so might as well go the cheaper route and use the styrofoam. it's sad...this is a big, extremely environmentally irresponsible mistake on their part. with the money they would have used to make just one of those sweet tea commercials, they could have put recycle bins in their locations all over the country.


This is interesting. But elsewhere, I've read that paper cups cause more trash than Styrofoam cups. Hard to decide the right thing to do.

Almost 100% of customers demand the added cardboard sleeve, which the styrofoam cups do not require.

It turns out styrofoam is an excellent material for recycling it takes much more time than I’d thought for a paper cup to biodegrade. The paper cup will still be a paper cup 20 years from now.
This was a surprise to me.

Also, a study by Canadian scientist Martin Hocking shows that making a paper cup uses as much petroleum or natural gas as a polystyrene cup. Plus, the paper cup uses wood pulp. The Canadian study said, ‘The paper cup consumes 12 times as much steam, 36 times as much electricity, and twice as much cooling water as the plastic cup.’ And because the paper cup uses more raw materials and energy, it also costs 2.5 times more than the plastic cup.”

Jenny Tea

This is not right, maybe they do it for marketing purposes, because it just doesn't make sense to use other materials just for their tea while their other products use paper cup.


I believe McDonald should ban styrofoam immediately. They should use non petroleum lined paper cups!

Save the earth!!!


They are doing a lot of pollution with styrofoam. They should not use it!


The biggest enviro-idiot boondoggle involving McDonalds was when they were forced to phase out the styrofoam clamshells they had been selling burgers in for decades. McDonalds had a recycling program in place for those used clamshells but what about the plastic coated paper wraps they use now? Nope. 100% of those paper wraps get thrown into the regular garbage. Score +1 for the misguided green-idiots, -1 for the environment they thought they were saving.

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