BOSTON — WHEN the McDonald's Corporation launched its McRecycle USA program three years ago, one of its goals was to spend $100 million a year on products made with recycled materials. But the company quickly exceeded that goal, and now spends an average of $200 million yearly to buy recycled goods.
The first thing McDonald's did was introduce brown paper bags made with 100 percent recycled content. It also outfitted its playgrounds with recycled tires. Its roofs are made from recycled computer casings and its frames from recycled steel and aluminum.
Profit is not McDonald's goal in this effort, claims Robert Langert, director of environmental affairs. ``But we're not looking to lose money either,'' he adds. ``The individual things we've done have saved money but on the whole the goal is to incorporate the environment and at worst break even.''
``Once you put your feet in and say, `I'm going to buy more recycled products for my company,' it's amazing what you can buy,'' Mr. Langert says.
McDonald's is not alone in its efforts. The Buy Recycled Business Alliance, a project of the National Recycling Coalition, was started last year by 25 companies committed to helping struggling recycling markets by increasing their purchases of recycled products and materials.
The group met last week in Nashville to assess its first year.
Last year the founding members of the alliance spent $2.7 billion on recycled goods. This year, with more than 475 new members, that number has jumped to $10.5 billion, according to Jeanne Meyer, manager of environmental affairs at Lever Brothers Company in New York, an alliance member.
``Right now there is an oversupply of materials and not enough end-uses,'' Ms. Meyer says. ``We're demonstrating that if businesses can collectively pool their purchasing power, the impact will be dramatic.''
``This is a real bandwagon phenomenon,'' Meyer adds. ``Companies are saying they're willing to rethink their purchasing practices, buy recycled, and keep records of what they're buying. They're finding there's a surprising array of products made with recycled -
not just letterhead.''
Lever Brothers uses 100 percent recycled paperboard cartons for its laundry detergent and a 100 percent recycled plastic scoop in the box.
The alliance companies say that increasing their purchases of recycled products and materials has not been easy, however. ``Our single biggest hurdle was finding materials [of] the right fit that would maintain quality and could be used at high concentrations,'' says Bill Bennett, manager of business development at Rubbermaid Inc. in Winchester, Va. ``The solution was to manage recycling from within Rubbermaid.''
The result is that a large number of Rubbermaid products are made of 20 percent post-consumer content and some as high as 50 percent. The company's goal is to increase its use of recycled materials from about 4 million pounds in 1993 to between 8 million and 10 million pounds by the end of 1994. ``We've had to be willing to make the investment on a long-haul basis because of the return on that investment,'' Mr. Bennett says.
American Airlines saved $100,000 when it began purchasing 100 percent recycled computer paper. But in other areas there have been less savings. ``We realized we were not really recycling until we were buying recycled,'' says Beth Hayes, senior administrator of environmental affairs at American. In its first year as an alliance member, American increased its purchases of recycled goods 18 percent from $13.6 million to $16 million.
The No. 1 barrier to buying recycled, says Meyer of Lever Brothers, is the perception that recycled products are inferior. The second biggest barrier, she says, is availability. ``There are [products] companies would like to be buying but are still trying to source out,'' she says. One of the purposes of the alliance, she adds, is to give purchasing agents the information they need to find recycled materials.
``There is an erroneous belief that [buying recycled] will cost more,'' says David Smith of the plastic container division at Johnson Controls in Barrington, Ill. ``Generally, people are resistant to change and we have to make believers of them.''