McDonald's tests new approach to overlooked environmental scourge: The plastic straw

  • McDonald's will begin to replace plastic straws with paper straws in all U.K. locations starting in May.
  • Activists say turning down straws is the best way for consumers to use less plastic.
  • Plastic manufacturers are struggling to find eco-friendly alternatives.
McDonald's is rolling out paper straws across its 1,300 UK locations in May, but environmental activists say consumers make a better decision when not using a straw at all.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
McDonald's is rolling out paper straws across its 1,300 UK locations in May, but environmental activists say consumers make a better decision when not using a straw at all.

An environmental turning point is lurking in your drink.

That's the argument championed by activists fighting against the use of plastic straws. Environmentalist groups estimate we use more than 500 million plastic straws every day in the U.S. Their ecological toll made the internet squirm when a video of researchers pulling a plastic straw out of the bloody nose of an endangered sea turtle went viral.

McDonald's has become an unlikely ally to the anti-plastic movement. The fast food company announced it would switch to paper straws in all of its 1,300 U.K. locations starting in May. Stores also will keep straws behind the counter, and customers will have to ask for a straw if they want one. Chains such as Wagamama and Pizza Express are also moving away from plastic straws.

"The only thing left for us to move forward on are the lids that go on to our cups," McDonald's U.K. CEO Paul Pomroy told Sky News. "Straws are one of those things that people feel passionately about, and rightly so, and we're moving those straws behind the front counter."

Many cities in US banning plastic straws

In the U.S., many cities are banning plastic straws. Seattle, Fort Meyers, Malibu and others have banned restaurants from giving them out.

"This is something that we can no longer avoid addressing," said Diana Lofflin, the founder of StrawFree.org. "It's become a global issue, and straws are on the leading edge."

Although straws represent a small portion of the 8 million metric tons of plastic that ends up in the ocean every year, Lofflin believes plastic straws are an easy way to get people started on reducing their plastic use.

"You use a straw for 10 minutes, and it never goes away." -Diana Lofflin, founder of StrawFree.org

Just getting people to turn down a straw is a gateway to a more sustainable lifestyle. "It's a simple step that anybody can take to address the global plastic problem," Lofflin said. "You use a straw for 10 minutes, and it never goes away."

Restaurants are finding ways to adapt. A Malibu café began using pasta as straws (a gluten-free alternative is available). For restaurants that need straws, such as smoothie shops, Lofflin recommends reusable options like Pyrex, bamboo or metal.

"You're going to have some loss, but if that's the case, put your logo on it," she said. "You suddenly have a promotional item."

The design studio Kikkerland designed these festive paper straws that can be tossed in a home composter after a party. They come in a box of 144 and can be purchased for under $10.
Allen J. Schaben | Los Angeles Times| Getty Images
The design studio Kikkerland designed these festive paper straws that can be tossed in a home composter after a party. They come in a box of 144 and can be purchased for under $10.

As the tide shifts against plastic straws, plastic manufacturers continue to stress recycling.

"We understand all the recent consumer concerns," said Mario Abreu, v.p. of environment at Tetra Pak. Tetra Pak primarily manufactures packaging for food, but many drink cartons come with straws. "We are taking action on this as well because we realize we are using plastic."

All the material Tetra Pak uses must be recyclable, and the straws are no exception. The message the company promotes to corporate customers, including Coca Cola and milk company Silk, is recycling — just push the straw back into the carton and recycle the whole thing when finished. That's advice corporations are advised to put right on the packaging.

"Because they come together, they should go back together," Abreu said.

Tetra Pak's main concern is a straw's overall performance. "If there are better alternatives, we are open to using them," Abreu said. But until a durable, safe and affordable alternative is available, the company will just promote recycling.

Getty Images

The recycling message echoes that of Plastico, a plastic tableware company in the U.K.

John Reeve's, the head of Plastico's European sales, argues the key is coming up with realistic recycling programs. The company is working with sports arenas and concert venues to put giant recycling bins in concourses to recycle single-use plastic cups.

As for straws, Plastico doesn't have a clear-cut solution. "We have to come up with solutions that meet the needs of customers," Reeves said. "Everybody's needs are different."

Biodegradable in name only

Paper straws and bio-plastic straws cost more, and Reeves argues bioplastic straws aren't as eco-friendly as the public thinks.

Many biodegradable straws are made of polylactic acid. Reeves said these PLA straws can only decompose in an industrial composting facility, and U.K. facilities don't take PLA straws. In the end, biodegradable straws often end up in a landfill. He calls the biodegradable label on these straws nothing more than "guilt-free packaging."

Paper straws don't have this flaw, but they are less durable and more expensive than plastic options.

Even if composting facilities do take biodegradable straws, many companies mislabel their plastics as "biodegradable" because consumers are more willing to buy products with that term on the label. Jim Bunchuck, the solid waste coordinator in Southold, New York, experimented with leaf bags that were labeled biodegradable. "That's really an oxymoron – the bags degraded all right, but simply into smaller pieces of plastic," Bunchuck wrote in an email. "Even if the pieces get so small as to be hard to see, they still can leach their chemical components into the environment or become food for unsuspecting animals."

As for plastic recycling, the human track record so far is pathetic. Of the 6.9 billion tons of plastic waste ever created, almost 80 percent of it has ended up in landfills or the environment.

For now, the eco-friendly consumer options remain limited. There's truly reusable straws made of bamboo, metal or glass. There's the slightly pricier paper straws. And, of course, there's the ability to just turn down the straw at a restaurant. As the sea turtle video showed, this small action can make a big difference.