Sustainable Energy

Paper straws at McDonald's in the UK can't be recycled

Key Points
  • Spokesperson for McDonald's says advice to put paper straws in general waste bins is only temporary. 
  • As companies look to embrace different ways of packaging food and drink, new recycling infrastructure will be required. 
The old plastic straws, pictured here, could also be recycled, although infrastructure issues meant this wasn't possible.
Gerald Matzka | picture alliance | Getty Images

Paper straws at McDonald's restaurants in the U.K and Ireland cannot, for the moment, be recycled.

In 2018, the fast food giant announced it would commence a phased roll-out of paper straws in the region, aimed at cutting down on the use of plastics.

It has, however, encountered difficulties with recycling the new, paper-based straws, according to a report in U.K. newspaper The Sun. The newspaper cited an internal memo which said that the paper straws were not currently recyclable and should therefore be placed in general waste bins "until further notice."

The old plastic straws were recyclable, although issues with infrastructure meant that this too was not possible.

In an emailed statement to CNBC Tuesday, a spokesperson for McDonald's said that while the materials that make up the paper straws were recyclable, "they cannot currently be processed by waste solution providers or local authorities unless collected separately."

The spokesperson described this as a wider industry issue, adding that "the infrastructure needed to recycle has not kept pace with the emergence of paper straws." 

This view was echoed by the marketing director of the straw manufacturer, Transcend Packaging, who told BBC Radio Wales that the product was "100% recyclable." Mark Varney also emphasized the importance of infrastructure when it came to recycling.

The McDonald's spokesperson said the firm was "working with our waste management providers to find a sustainable solution, as we did with paper cups, 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."

Food and drink companies face a number of challenges when it comes to sustainability.

A ban on plastic drinks stirrers, straws, and plastic-stemmed cotton swabs will come into force in England in April 2020. The ban, announced in May 2019, follows on from a consultation which found that more than 80% of respondents supported a ban on the distribution and sale of plastic straws, with 90% backing a ban on drinks stirrers and 89% in favor of a ban on cotton swabs. 

Outlining details of the ban, the U.K. government said there would be exemptions to make sure that people with a disability or medical requirements could continue using plastic straws. In practice, this means that while restaurants and bars will not be allowed to display plastic straws or "automatically hand them out" they will be able to provide them when a request is made.

Another exemption will apply to the use of plastic-stemmed cotton swabs for "medical and scientific purposes" where such items are "often the only practical option."