Commentary

McDonald's Actions May Be The Impetus For The Last Plastic Straws

McDonald’s will replace plastic straws with paper ones in its 1,361 restaurants in the United Kingdom and Ireland starting this September and will also begin testing alternatives in the U.S., France, Sweden, Norway and Australia to what is reportedly the fifth most common form of trash picked up off coastlines worldwide.

“McDonald’s is committed to using our scale for good and working to find sustainable solutions for plastic straws globally,” states Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s EVP, global supply chain and sustainability, in the release announcing the move. “… We hope this work will support industry-wide change and bring sustainable solutions to scale.”

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Indeed, “because of its massive size, the global hamburger chain can effect significant change in the supply chain, as it did when it announced it would use eggs only from cage-free hens. McDonald’s previously announced a goal to source all of its packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025,” the Chicago Tribune reports

The story also reminds us that “last month, McDonald’s shareholders overwhelmingly voted down a proposal to study alternatives to plastic straws. The company, which advised shareholders to reject the proposal, said it was already undertaking such work.”

Across the pond, “a petition calling for the chain to stop using plastic straws has drawn nearly a half million signatures. The company reportedly uses about 1.8 million straws a day in the U.K., and it has committed to having 100% of its packaging come from ‘renewable, recycled, or certified’ sources by 2025,” NPR’s Laurel Wamsley reports

“Plastic straws are generally used only once, making them a prime target for environmentalists who point to the enormous amount of plastic that ends up in the world's oceans — the equivalent, according to one marine ecologist, of a garbage truck full of plastic every minute,” Wamsley continues.

“Most plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through the mechanical recycling sorter. They drop through sorting screens and mix with other materials and are too small to separate, contaminating recycling loads or getting disposed as garbage,” according to an FAQ on the For A Strawless Ocean website.

“You asked us to ditch plastic straws,” a McDonald’s U.K. Facebook post reads. “We trialled them … You liked them. So we’re rolling out paper straws from September.” 

“McDonald's has received plenty of praise across social media for its decision,” Erica Chayes Wida observes for Today, citing some nostalgic tweets with an edge. “Does anybody remember soggy paper straws?” reads one. “Excellent news however the paper straws need more work as they start to soften up part way through big time. Perhaps if you sold branded, collapsible, reusable straws?” suggests another.

Speaking of social media, a 2015 video of a Costa Rican sea turtle with a straw up its nostril has drawn nearly 28 million views of its original posting and has been widely distributed, lending impactful visual support to the cause.

As for McDonald’s announcement, “it’s a seemingly small, but environmentally significant move. Environmentalists have worked hard in recent years to raise awareness about just how detrimental plastic drinking straws are,” writes Kay Wicker for Think Progress, a news site with a progressive perspective.

Not everyone is a fan of the change. Some people point out that some people with disabilities require straws to ingest food and liquids, and say they will now be required to carry a personal straw around with them, since paper straws collapse more easily and are generally seen as less user friendly,” Wicker continues, pointing out that “some environmentally conscious people” already do that in the U.S.

“According to the U.K. government, 1 million birds and more than 100,000 sea mammals die every year from eating or getting tangled in plastic waste. And research shows there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world's oceans by 2050,” writes Lauren Said-Moorhouse for CNNMoney.

“U.K. Environment Secretary Michael Gove called on other companies to follow the example of McDonald’s,” Said-Moorhouse continues.

“McDonald's has made a significant investment in U.K. manufacturing to produce an alternative to plastic, showing British businesses are taking a global lead,” Gove said in a statement.

McDonald’s isn't the only major straw user to start tossing them aside,” USA Today’s Zlati Meyer points out. “Royal Caribbean has promised to nix them by the end of this year, joining fellow cruise companies Hurtigruten and Peregrine Adventures, who’ve made similar pledges. Alaska Airlines is getting rid of plastic drink stirrers starting next month. And the food service company Bon Appétit Management, whose 1,000-plus locations in 33 states range from the Art Institute of Chicago to the University of Portland, will stop using plastic straws and stirrers by September 2019.”

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