McDonald's UK began phasing out plastic straws in over 1,000 restaurants in September 2018 © Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto
McDonald's UK began phasing out plastic straws in over 1,000 restaurants in September 2018 © Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto

The McDonald’s straw dilemma

6 August 2019

McDonald’s UK has admitted its new paper straws cannot yet be recycled as the infrastructure is not in place. 

An internal McDonald’s memo has advised staff to dispose of the paper straws in general waste, even though they are manufactured from 100% recyclable materials, according to The Sun newspaper. The straws are reportedly too thick to be recycled.

The restaurant chain, which uses 1.8m straws a day just in the UK, said that while they had quickly moved from plastic to paper straws in order to meet consumer demand, “the infrastructure needed to recycle has not kept pace”. The problem signals a wider industry issue. 

“The [straws] cannot currently be processed by waste solution providers and local authorities unless collected separately,” a company spokesperson said.

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

McDonald’s said that over the past few years the number of items they recycle has grown. “In particular we have seen an increase in cups recycled – with 40 million recycled last year,” the spokesperson added. “However, we recognise this is something we need to continue to focus on.” 

In June 2018, McDonald’s announced it would be replacing plastic straws at over 1,000 branches across the UK and Ireland to reduce plastic waste. 

At the time, Paul Pomroy, CEO of McDonald’s UK and Ireland, said: “Reflecting the broader public debate, our customers told us they wanted to see a move on straws but to do so without compromising their overall experience when visiting our restaurants.”  

Pomroy said, as a result, he had worked closely with suppliers to find a solution. Given the size of their business, however, the supply chain issues were significant. 

In May 2019, the UK government announced that a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds would come into effect from April 2020. 

Former environment secretary Michael Gove said: “Urgent and decisive action is needed to tackle plastic pollution and protect our environment. These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming precious marine life.” 

However, environmental campaigners stressed that we need to avoid manufacturing these plastics in the first place.

“For too long the debate has been stuck on recycling and how to deal with waste once it is created,” Friends of the Earth's Julian Kirby told the BBC

“We should be thinking about how to avoid waste creation. Lips have been a waste-free alternative to straws for millions of years.” 

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