Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


McDonalds are wrong to switch to paper straws (Aug19)

I can’t count the number of times when I’ve said I don’t want a straw and the response has been – it’s OK because it’s paper…. It’s not.  

First, we have to challenge why straws are so commonly used.  I suppose I have to acknowledge that there are some situations where it makes sense – for example for someone with a disability.

Do you need straws at McDonalds?  Well, they’ve designed their cups with lids to put straws through, to avoid spillage when you take it away.  But, if you’re eating in store, I can’t see why you need either the lid or a straw….  And you could use a teaspoon for mixing your drink, if needs be.

The big question however is whether it make sense for straws to be paper or plastic.  My view is that for McDonalds it makes more sense for it to be plastic.  Why?  Because they can then make the cup, the lid and the straw from the same plastic and they can all be recycled in the same system.  What’s more they could be made from recycled material too.  Swapping to paper straws but keeping the rest of the cup plastic is nonsense, because it means the straws are not recyclable – and they even contaminate recycling systems. That’s what there’s a fuss about.   

Surprisingly, there’s actually been a petition set up by McDonalds customers to bring back plastic straws. This is not because of their eco-credentials, it’s because they think they perform better – not getting soggy.  This has been signed by over 51,000 people. I can’t believe that such a fuss can be made about something so trivial.  Worryingly, it shows that more people are wedded to straws – plastic or otherwise – than one might expect.

But with McDonalds dishing out 1.8 million straws a day, it’s an issue worth thinking about.  

My first recommendation is for McDonalds to ditch straws wherever possible and provide alternatives – for example by making customers actively choose to have one, rather than being given them automatically.  However, if straws are used, plastic ones would be better – to be collected for recycling, along with cups and lids.  

Clearly, if the straws end up in the sea, we would prefer them to be paper. But, I don’t believe we should be designing products and packaging to be disposed of in our oceans.  That’s the big challenge for all of us. 

As with many things, it’s not plastic that’s the problem, it’s what we do with it…. 

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