News | October 6, 1998

McDonald's to Launch Biodegradable Big Mac Packaging

Starting early next year, McDonald's will begin using biodegradable containers made partly from potatoes for its Big Mac sandwiches. The hamburger giant's main packaging supplier, Perseco, will be purchasing at least 1.8 billion Big Mac boxes from container manufacturer Sweetheart Cup Co. The containers were developed by E Khashoggi Industries (EKI), the parent corporation of EarthShell Corp. (Santa Barbara, CA), in cooperation with McDonald's. McDonald's is also planning cups, plates, bowls and trays from the same material.

EarthShell containers, which consist of limestone, corn, other starch binders, natural fibers, water and potato, will be used to contain McDonald's Big Mac sandwiches starting next year.

By using a non-plastic, non-paper material that decomposes on land and dissolves rapidly in water, McDonald's hopes to reduce fastfood container litter. Three new production lines have been built to produce the containers, which will be manufactured at Sweetheart Cup's Owings Mills, MD, facility. The EarthShell containers are expected to be in McDonald's restaurants by the first quarter of next year, officials at EarthShell said.

The hamburger boxes, which are edible, are made entirely of natural and biodegradable materials, consisting mostly of limestone. Natural starches from potatoes, corn or rice serve as binders gluing the limestone particles together. Water and natural fibers are also used to create the non-toxic material. The ingredients are baked in a mold to produce an airy honeycombed structure that is lightweight and insulating.

According to officials at EarthShell, the containers are 100% biodegradable. They will dissolve in water in an hour, and if put in a garden slugs will eat them in a matter of weeks. Humans can even eat the EarthShell containers without being harmed; the material has proven to pass through the human body without causing problems.

The material is protected by more than 100 patents. The company says it is sturdier and retains heat better than traditional polystyrene, plastic or paper containers. It also consumes 60% less energy in manufacture, as EarthShell packages are formed by simply evaporating water in a common baking process. In a Life Cycle Inventory study comparing the overall system requirements for EarthShell and polystyrene packaging production, Franklin Associates Ltd. concluded that the EarthShell system required significantly less total energy than the polystyrene system, generated less waste by volume in simulated wet compaction (conditions considered typical of actual landfilling), and produced substantially less greenhouse gas emissions.

As for functionality, the containers provide good insulation for both hot and cold foods, and food and beverages in EarthShell packaging can be reheated in a microwave. The containers have an exterior coating that contributes to the product's stability. EarthShell Corp. says the material is competitively priced with traditional food-service disposables though no financial figures are available.