WHEN McDonald's Corporation announced last fall that it was switching from plastic foam packaging to paper wrappers, the great wrapper debate did not end. It simply shifted arenas. Ed Rensi, president of McDonald's USA, said that ``although some scientific studies indicate that foam packaging is environmentally sound, our customers just don't feel good about it.''
The move eased the pressure from consumers. However, the fast-food giant was soon charged with buckling to public pressure without good reason.
This debate is far from over, and is drawing attention to a growing but controversial field of research known as life-cycle assessment.
Life-cycle studies assess the environmental impact of a product in all phases of its ``life'': raw materials, manufacture, distribution, use, and disposal.
In McDonald's case, a study by Franklin Associates of Kansas City, Kan., held that petroleum-based polystyrene foam compares favorably to bleached paperboard. An opinion column in the Wall Street Journal cited the study's finding that foam involves 30 percent less energy and 46 percent less air pollution than paperboard. These conclusions were then used in a Feb. 4 Forbes magazine article headlined ``McDonald's caves in.''
However, the Franklin study had not compared - nor intended to compare - polystyrene foam with the kind of wrapper that McDonald's would be using as a replacement. Richard Denison, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), recalculated the study based on the new McDonald's wrapper, which weighs one-third as much as a paperboard container, and found that the results shifted to favor the paper wrapper in energy use, air emissions, water discharges, and solid waste production.
Studies such as Franklin's are ``taking on a larger and larger role in the public [environmental] debates, and that role is shifting away from simply accepting them as gospel,'' says Mr. Denison, who worked with McDonald's on the transition away from the foam ``clamshells.''
Still, ``it's very easy to report part of the news,'' Denison says. For example, the claim that foam packaging causes 46 percent less air pollution is based on aggregate numbers that do not assign varying levels of toxicity to different pollutants.
Similarly, a new study comparing foam and paper cups does not attempt to factor in emissions of styrene and benzene in the production of foam cups, or dioxin in the production of paper cups, although environmentalists say the toxicity of these chemicals should make them a much larger concern than other pollutants involved in the manufacturing processes. This study, by Martin Hocking of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, found strong advantages of foam over paper.
ALTHOUGH these studies deal with extremely complex issues, advocacy groups want to be able to frame the issues in simple terms that the public can remember. A poll released last week by the Gallup Organization and Advertising Age magazine found that, although most Americans consider themselves environmentalists, 66 percent cannot name a single company they think has environmentally responsible packaging or products.
Life-cycle studies - though often sought by companies for internal use only - have been used as important weapons in public battles for market share, with one industry claiming the environmental high ground over another in advertisements.
In these emotional debates, industry advocates oversimplify the issues, environmentalists say.
Marjorie Franklin, president of Franklin Associates, says she takes a ``philosophical attitude'' about the uses to which the reports are put. ``Once the study is in the public domain, people are going to use it,'' she says. Franklin Associates is a pioneer in the field of life-cycle studies.
On the issue of assessing the risk of different pollutants, Ms. Franklin says it is not the research firm's responsibility to assign a value to different emissions.
``We're not toxicologists,'' she says. Even professionals in that field have a hard time agreeing, she adds. But environmentalists say that those who use these studies can reach distorted conclusions if such risk-assessments are not made.