September 25, 2013
As You Sow Engages with Food Companies on Packaging
by Robert Kropp
The advocacy group succeeds in convincing McDonald's to end the use of environmentally destructive
polystyrene foam cups, but decides to resubmit a shareowner resolution with General Mills after
engagement over post-consumer packaging fails to lead to agreement.
In much the same way as a tax on carbon would be, the philosophy behind extended producer
responsibility (EPR) highlights a basic tenet of corporate social responsibility. In the case of a
carbon tax, those that pollute pay for it; in EPR, responsibility for post-consumer packaging waste
is shifted from taxpayers and governments to the corporations themselves.
“At least 43
million tons of plastic, glass, metal, and paper packaging—much of it with market value—is
landfilled or burned in the US each year,” according to As You Sow, an advocacy organization
promoting environmental and social corporate responsibility. “The commodity market value of this
wasted glass, plastic, paper, and metal packaging is estimated at $11.4 billion.”
Furthermore, products and packaging are responsible for 44% of greenhouse gas (GHG)
emissions in the US, more than the electrical utilities industry sector.
As You Sow scored
a noteworthy triumph this week when McDonald’s announced that it will replace environmentally
destructive polystyrene foam coffee cups with paper cups at the company’s 14,000 locations in the
US. A shareowner resolution filed by As You Sow in 2011 requested that the fast-food giant report
on its progress toward ensuring “more environmentally beneficial beverage containers;” after the
resolution gained 30% of shareowners’ votes, McDonald’s embarked on a pilot program in which
polystyrene cups were replaced with paper at 2,000 stores.
“The company has confirmed
that the pilots were successful and that it will phase out foam cups at all locations in the coming
months,” As You Sow stated this week. While congratulating McDonald’s on its initiative, however,
As You Sow also observed, “There is more work to do for the company to have a comprehensive
packaging recycling policy.”
"McDonald’s has made a great start by phasing out foam,"
Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President for As You Sow, said. “We hope they will also incorporate
recycled fiber in the cups and develop on-site systems to collect and recycle food service
Corporate engagement with McDonald’s by As You Sow took a route well-traveled
by shareowner advocates to a satisfactory end result: filing a resolution leads to engagement leads
to agreement. As You Sow’s engagement with General Mills, on the other hand, has had its share of
In 2011, As You Sow filed a shareowner resolution with General Mills,
requesting that the company keep up with some of its industry peers and adopt an EPR policy. After
the company agreed to meet regularly with stakeholders concerned over package waste, the resolution
However, “In spite of constructive dialogue,” As You Sow stated, “the
company was not willing to articulate a policy on post-consumer recycling of packaging in the US or
to initiate new efforts to increase recovery of its packaging or recycled content.”
result of the company’s inaction, As You Sow and Clean Yield Asset Management refiled the resolution this year.
“After two years of dialogue, General Mills continues to
avoid the basic question of what responsibility it should bear for recycling packaging waste in the
US,” MacKerron said. The company currently contributes to mandated producer responsibility
systems in nearly all of the European Union and several Canadian provinces, yet it has not agreed
to support similar responsibility for its packaging in the US.”
General Mills held its
annual general meeting was held this week. The results of the vote on the resolution have not been
distributed, but the company stated that the resolution did not receive a majority vote.