There's An Awkward Problem With McDonald's New "Eco-Friendly" Paper Straws

There a number of consumer items that are widely assumed to be recyclable but aren't, including McDonald's new paper straws. Diana Vucane/Shutterstock

In the wake of the world’s Attenborough-inspired drive against single-use plastic, McDonald’s restaurants in the UK and Ireland decided to ditch their plastic straws in favor of paper straws.

There’s just one problem: the new paper straws are not recyclable, while their old plastic straws were. 

An internal McDonald’s memo, leaked by an insider to The Sun, shows that members of staff in the UK are advised to put the paper straws into general trash along with food and other nonrecyclables "until further notice." Although the materials themselves are recyclable, the memo notes they are constructed in a way that means it's not possible for most process plants to currently recycle them.

“While the materials are recyclable, their current thickness makes it difficult for them to be processed by our waste solution providers, who also help us recycle our paper cups,” said a McDonald’s spokesperson.

“We are working with them to find a solution, and so the advice to put paper straws in general waste is therefore temporary. This waste from our restaurants does not go to landfill, but is used to generate energy,” they added.

McDonald’s customers slurp through 1.8 million straws a day in the UK alone. The fast-food giant rolled out its paper straws across the UK and Republic of Ireland earlier this year after a successful trial in selected restaurants in 2018. 

Regardless of their supposed green credentials, the straws were a flop with a small collection of customers who complained they “dissolve” in milkshakes, go mushy in soda, and change the taste of drinks. Following widespread criticism of the new straws on social media, over 50,000 surprisingly angry people have added their signature to a petition asking to bring back the old plastic straws.  

"Get rid on [sic] the waste of time paper straws," the petition reads, "So I can drink my milkshake proper."

However, as Friends of the Earth's Julain Kirby helpfully pointed out: "Lips have been a waste-free alternative to straws for millions of years."

There are a number of consumer items that are widely assumed to be recyclable but aren't, including takeaway coffee cups, diapers, styrofoam, tissues, plastic wraps, gift wrap, chip packets, greasy takeaway boxes, and food containers that haven't been thoroughly rinsed. Understanding what is and isn’t recyclable is extremely important since one contaminated non-recyclable item can lead to a whole load of recyclables going to landfill. It’s also important to check what your local authority and processing plant recycle, as this can (unhelpfully) vary massively depending on your locality. 

It's also worth considering that just 0.03 percent of ocean plastic comes from drinking straws, while an estimated 46 percent comes from fishing nets. Changing our consumption habits is undoubtedly a good way to start fighting back against plastic pollution, but it's going to take a lot more than saying no to straws. 

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