Pushed by the environmental crisis and climate-conscious customers, companies are racing to parade their green credentials and earn themselves some positive headlines in the process. But – as McDonald’s is finding out – sometimes a well-intentioned shift can end up making businesses less sustainable than they hoped.
In May 2018 McDonald’s in the UK started phasing out its plastic straws in favour of paper ones, in response to a petition signed by nearly 500,000 people asking the company to stop using plastic straws. Soon customers started complaining that the paper straws disintegrated in drinks so McDonald’s came back with thicker paper straw.
But on August 5, McDonald’s stated that these new straws – unlike their paper predecessors – weren’t to be recycled. The fast food company, which uses 1.8 million straws every day in the UK, told the BBC that although the materials were recyclable, the new straws’ thickness meant they couldn’t easily be recycled so we better off being put in general waste. So what went wrong?
It’s hard to know exactly why McDonald’s thinks the straws aren’t recyclable – the company did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment – but it’s likely that the idea that thickness is a problem is erroneous. “I don’t know the details about the straws that McDonald’s uses, but I cannot understand that the thickness would be a problem, as paper mills also recycle solid board,” says Ernst Worrell, a professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development in the Netherlands.
The company that makes the straws – UK-based Transcend Packaging – pointed out that although the straws themselves are recyclable, that doesn’t mean they can be recycled everywhere. “Infrastructure from businesses and local authorities” was necessary “to help maximise the opportunity to recycle them” the firm’s marketing director told BBC Radio Wales.
This is a crucial part of the recycling puzzle, Worrell points out. “In the introduction of new products on the market, it is still, unfortunately, common practice to not sufficiently consider the end of life or waste phase of it, or do so in a pretty naive way about the current waste management system and its ability to handle the product,” he says. “This may generate potentially problems for (public) waste management systems, which may result in higher costs for disposal for the community.”
And Worrell also adds that McDonald’s plastic straws weren’t recycled previously anyway – they were incinerated. “Given this, I think the article in the Sun and its sister newspapers is really overblown,” he says.
For Jem Woods, a lecturer in bioenger at Imperial College London, this all points to a wider problem about the way that companies try and make themselves more sustainable. “I’m not saying that there aren’t really serious issues to do with [plastic use],” he says, “but the emergence of plastics as a sort of huge global problem is driven more perspective than then underlying science.”
Stuart Foster, chief executive officer agrees that firms have often put speed – and positive headlines – before planning. “Through recent media, consumer and political pressure to implement alternatives to plastics, decisions have been made to move away from this material often without having the time to gather all the evidence on full life cycle impacts, or having time to identify the best long term options,” he says.
What needs to be considered in this transition isn’t just the material itself, says Woods, but the impacts of the entire lifecycle of this material. For example, a very rapid switch away from plastics, in straws and other applications, to biologically based products could have major implications on demand for agricultural products and forestry products. “Ensuring that those supplies are sustainable and come from existing areas of agricultural that stimulate forestry production and are under good forestry practice, that’s the kind of details that are really important,” he says. “A sort of glib “we’ll just switch over’ isn’t helpful.”
The issue needs to be tackled holistically, says Foster: “The approach for all corporates must be about zero tolerance of plastic waste and littering, making better use of plastic resources, increasing and aligning consumer education through the pledge2recycle plastics initiative, and putting the right collection and handling infrastructure in place wherever possible.”
There also needs to be a focus on encouraging consumers to change their habits, says Jay Sinha, co-founder at Life without plastic. “In large part the plastics issue is a behavioral issue – it’s about habit change,” he says. “This is a really good example of that, because perhaps it’s just not necessary to use straws as much: so while [the change to paper straws is great] McDonald’s could be putting emphasis on not using straws or just refusing straws completely, which is what is being touted as a great solution when you are when you’re presented with a plastic straw by a restaurant or a bar.”
If the firm really wanted to cut down its impact, it might be better off trying to wean some customers off of straws altogether. “Putting a lot of emphasis on recycling, it sometimes takes away from the emphasis away from what what we think is part of the core of the problem, which is reducing at the source,” he says. “Anything McDonald’s could do to reduce its single use disposable packaging would be very welcome, given the scale of the packaging that they’re producing every single day, because that’s what the core of the problem whether it is plastic or something else, we have a major waste problem.”
McDonald’s transition is not totally misguided, then, but a cautionary tale for companies that choose to leap onto the green bandwagon before considering the implications. “I think the transition away from plastic straws is actually not fast at all, especially given that the plastic industry has not actively developed a good way to recover and recycle plastic straws in the decades that they made this product,” says Worrell. “Yet, for any alternative it is important to not make the same mistake and consider the end of life in an integrated way. Here, we need to do some learning, and maybe also remember the best straw is the one not used.”
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