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The real reason why McDonald’s straws matter

Precarious periods of history are subject to review. People will look back and see what the commentators of the time had to say.

So, the reviewers looking back on the summer of 2019, this brewing political crisis and the backdrop of a climate emergency will want to see if anyone captured the mood. They will spend time trying to decipher stories such as ‘Hated McDonald's straws can’t be recycled’ and more on the evils of paper straws and eulogising of plastic. It will be very confusing.

This straw story has history. Back in March 2018, McDonald's announced its plan to swap out the 1.8 million plastic drinking straws it dispenses through its ‘restaurants’ across the UK every day to more sustainable paper.

I have history with the story too, because in the early spring I was duly dispatched as a reporter to the facility in Camarthenshire, Wales, producing the replacement paper straws ahead of the big changeover. I found it really interesting. The facility that produces a number of paper and board packaging options for brands wanting to move out of single-use plastic, had been set up by an Italian entrepreneur (McDonald’s is just one client) and was now employing 60 local people.

It turns out making paper straws (without plastic-based adhesive and coating) is actually quite difficult, and the process had to be retaught. Nobody has made any paper straws for 60 years in Europe. They were, it transpired, an early casualty to the rise of disposable plastic. Their return, while not Earth-saving in and of itself, represented a shift, an example of building capacity for a plastic-free future.

But as these straws were rolled out across the UK, all most commentators wanted to focus on how crap the straws were and how they made your drink taste funny. (They don’t). A small half-hearted petition was launched – by an adult who felt securing a plastic straw with his lunchtime milkshake was akin to a human right – demanding that McDonald's return to plastic Turtle killers without delay.

McDonald's
McDonald's has moved from plastic to paper straws. Image Flickr/Naystin

I was despatched again, this time to report on the ‘backlash’. But in truth the customers that I spoke to, while they admitted the straws got a bit soggy over time, would say in the same breath that it was a small price to pay to get single use plastic out of the equation. The petition remained diminutive at around 40,000 signatures. Notably, previous ‘anti’ plastic petitions begun by members of the public, such as the one demanding Walkers take crisp packets back, and another against the use of plastic filaments in tea bags secured 200,000 plus signatures in 24 hours.

Fast forward to now. An internal memo from McDonalds suggest that the new paper straws, (or ‘hated’ paper straws to quote The Sun), were not recyclable and should be thrown in with general waste for incineration or landfill. Cue headlines dripping with Shadenfreude the gist of which was: ‘green ejits demand straws are changed, McDonalds pressured into move from recyclable plastic to non recyclable paper. Own goal!!!!!!!’ 

The only thing being recycled at this point is the story, but why?  It is not ideal that McDonald’s cannot recycle these straws but it was never very likely anyway. In truth, our national recycling infrastructure is so impoverished and our capacity so low that only bone dry, completely grease-free paper and cardboard can really be dealt with. Every other variant becomes a contaminant, especially a straw allegedly ‘turned to mush’ by a milkshake.

Meanwhile, if anyone is mourning McDonald’s good old fully recyclable plastic straws: save your tears. These extruded polymer tubes were also never going to be meaningfully recycled. Very little low-grade plastic waste can be easily or practically recycled in our mishmash of household bins  and sorting centres.

In reality, clear plastic bottles are the only material that can be consistently sold into the international recycling market (a labrynthian setup in and of itself) and reprocessed here. The tubs, trays and other bits we pop in the bin are often destined for Energy from Waste centres, i.e. incineration.

All of course are sold as ‘recyclable’, or that’s certainly the impression given. But any material in the world is theoretically recyclable. You can recycle anything if you are prepared to put enough energy and time into recovering the different bits of materials. The thing is it wouldn’t be a good use of energy or time. It simply wouldn’t be worth it.

But the tale of two straws (one of which is environmentally indefensible because it could easily become fugitive plastic pollution) and this rather manufactured backlash isn’t really about the reality of recycling and the misuse of the word, ‘recyclable’ – a meaningless word at this point.

It is about smearing environmentalists and any and all environmental change. McDonald’s has just been caught in the crossfire. The latest coverage in The Sun, for example, directly links to a story about activists trying to protest against the fossil fuel industry but staging a sit in at the wrong energy company. Stupid, yes, but not relevant.

On straws, we are only a few pieces away from blaming the whole saga on Greta Thunberg.  The direction of travel in these pieces is always the same, environmental change is unhinged, alarmist and seeking to ruin your life, starting with your milkshake.

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    Lucy Siegle

    Lucy Siegle is an independent writer and journalist who specialises in communicating earth science and telling environmental narratives. Throughout 2018 she has hosted a weekly segment on BBC1 dedicated to turning the tide on plastic. Her book, Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (and you) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again is published by Trapeze/Orion. Last month, she gave evidence to the government’s Environmental Audit Committee on fast fashion, launched the UN Charter for Fashion with Stella McCartney and was appointed a trustee for the NGO Surfers Against Sewage. Lucy lives on the River Thames and collects plastic waste most mornings in her kayak.

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