McDonald's has been praised for its plan to phase out foam packaging, and the company says "it could reduce the amount of waste its restaurants generate by up to 90 percent if it eliminated the foam material altogether" {"McDonald's Trashing Its Foam Containers," front page, Nov. 2}. But despite this new plan, garbage from McDonald's will still be a serious environmental problem.

First, McDonald's should be given credit for reacting to the public outcry to use "environmentally friendlier" products. Even more important, this is not the first time McDonald's has taken a major step toward finding solutions to public concerns.

McDonald's recent response addresses the need to reduce the amount of polystyrene foam packaging in the waste stream. This concern had been addressed earlier by implementing polystyrene recycling programs in a few McDonald's locations. Replacing foam with paper does decrease the bulk of the waste generated. Paper products aren't as thick or as bulky as polystyrene foam products; however, paper does have its drawbacks.

The paper packaging selected by McDonald's to replace its foam containers cannot be recycled because of its multilayer construction. Because it cannot be recycled, it must be discarded. Where will the McDonald's nonrecyclable paper products go? Most likely they will be dumped into landfills. Forty to 50 percent of landfills are made up of discarded paper products. In addition, it has been proved that even under the best of circumstances, paper products have trouble biodegrading in a landfill.

If not landfilled, will the McDonald's paper products be incinerated in waste-to-energy plants? The numbers of British Thermal Units produced during the combustion for one pound of polystyrene is more than double that for one pound of paper products. Polystyrene, therefore, is better suited to meet the energy producing needs of a waste-to-energy plant.

Over the past two years, McDonald's developed small-scale recycling programs for the foam clamshell packaging. Recycling the foam containers kept the packaging out of the waste stream. McDonald's has more than 8,400 restaurants in the United States alone, and expanding the reaches of these recycling programs into all McDonald's restaurants would have been costly for the fast-food chain. The switch to paper has, indeed, saved McDonald's a great deal of money -- money that would have otherwise been spent on implementing recycling programs. Even though McDonald's decreased the bulk of its waste produced, the unrecyclable packaging must be added to the waste stream.

The fact that McDonald's took action in response to environmental concerns should be commended. Yet one basic question still remains unanswered: How can we eliminate fast-food packaging garbage?