McDonald's: The first corporate partnership

We reduced waste and created a new way to work with companies

Richard Denison and Jackie Roberts

Our project team found that McDonald's generated most of its waste behind the counter.


In the late 1980s, there was growing public concern over the mountains of packaging, much of it non-recyclable, used by the fast food industry.

McDonald’s, the industry leader, faced rising public pressure to reduce the amount of packaging it used. And the visible waste — like those foam “clamshells” protecting every burger — was only a small part of the story. Almost 80% of McDonald’s waste was generated behind the counter, in food prep and supply systems.

Our strategy

On August 1, 1990, McDonald’s and EDF joined forces in a groundbreaking partnership to reduce McDonald’s solid waste. The project team analyzed McDonald’s U.S. operations, including restaurants, distribution centers and suppliers with these goals in mind:

  • Source reduction: Reduce the amount of material used
  • Reuse: Deploy reusable materials throughout the supply chain
  • Recycle: Return waste materials to productive use
  • Compost: Recycle organic materials

30% reduction in McDonald’s restaurant waste as a result of our partnership.

The results

In April 1991, after collaborating with EDF, McDonald’s announced major changes to its packaging and waste management:

  • Switching from polystyrene foam “clamshells” to paper for sandwich packaging, reducing waste 70-90%
  • Converting carry-out bags, coffee filters and Big Mac wraps to unbleached paper
  • Incorporating 30% postconsumer recycled content in paper napkins
  • Asking suppliers to incorporate 35% postconsumer recycled content into all corrugated shipping boxes

Over the next decade, McDonald’s eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled a million tons of corrugated boxes, and reduced restaurant waste by 30%. As a result of the packaging changes, McDonald’s also saves an estimated $6 million per year.

Building on that successful partnership, EDF, in 2003 helped McDonald’s create a new purchasing policy to reduce the use of antibiotics in poultry production. Antibiotics are routinely used in livestock and poultry operations to promote growth and prevent disease.

But their overuse often helps create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can threaten human health.

The new policy reduced by nearly 18,000 pounds the antibiotics used by McDonald’s poultry suppliers annually. As a result, McDonald’s top supplier, Tyson Foods, announced in 2006 it had cut antibiotic use over 90%.

The standards we set with McDonald’s produced a ripple effect across the entire fast food industry. By 2006, the nation’s top four poultry companies had all eliminated the use of human antibiotics to promote growth in chickens.

In subsequent years, EDF has launched many partnerships with market leaders, creating a model for nonprofits working directly with companies. In 2005, we secured a commitment from retail giant Walmart to reduce the environmental footprint of its operations and the products it sells.

Under our Green Returns program, launched in 2008, we are working with private equity firms like KKR and The Carlyle Group to improve environmental performance at the companies they own. The private equity sector invests in thousands of companies, employs millions of people and controls investments equivalent to approximately 10% of the U.S. economy.

We accept no funding from our corporate partners. That frees us to set aggressive goals and spread the innovations far and wide.

Tom Murray Vice President, Corporate Partnerships

More about our work with companies

This project with McDonalds was first in a long list of fruitful corporate partnerships.

See highlights of our partnerships »