Bring back the plastic straws

McDonald’s new paper straws are rubbish. And they don’t even help the environment.

Emma Revell


If you’ve been to McDonald’s in the past few months, you will have noticed a change. Along with seemingly every bar, restaurant, and café in central London, it has replaced its plastic drinks straws with paper ones, in a bid to be more environmentally friendly.

McDonald’s had been spurred into straw-changing action by a combination of the fuss generated by the BBC’s Blue Planet II, in which David Attenborough showcased the impact of single-use plastics on our oceans, and the UK government’s decision to ban plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds from April 2020.

But there’s a big problem. As reported by the Sun, the 1.8million paper straws used every day in McDonald’s restaurants are not recyclable, while the now-scrapped plastic versions were recyclable. In fact, the paper versions – which customers have complained dissolve in soft drinks, are difficult to use in milkshakes, and even change the taste of some beverages – are going straight in the bin and then into the incinerator.

This is a perfect example of bad policymaking, driven by companies and politicians who care more about chasing headlines than looking at the evidence and making informed decisions. In a bid to appear environmentally friendly, McDonald’s has actually increased its carbon footprint and has forced an inferior product on millions of customers.

Such kneejerk and ill-thought-out decision-making is common when it comes to the climate-change debate.

Take Prince Harry’s decision last week to urge the world to have fewer children. He seems to be oblivious to the fact that many Western countries actually face the problem of an ageing population, meaning there are too few working-age taxpayers to support those living longer in retirement and needing expensive healthcare. As public finances come under increasing pressure, we need more, not fewer, babies.

Yes, people are rightly concerned about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, but we risk exacerbating existing problems through kneejerk decision making. Plastic straws account for 0.03 per cent of plastic in our seas. Fishing nets make up almost half. By making changes that make us feel good – or make businesses look good – without considering whether the policy has the impact it is supposed to have, we often end up doing more harm than good.

In order to make a lasting impact on pollution and climate change we need to have an honest conversation about what consumers want and what effect certain materials have on the environment. Plastic is a very modern bogeyman, but until affordable and effective alternatives are available, companies and governments would do well to call time on the plastic bans.

Emma Revell is communications manager at the Institute for Economic Affairs.

Picture by: Getty.

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David Corless

7th August 2019 at 3:13 am

Some Australian supermarkets recently removed “single use” plastic bags from their checkouts for environmental reasons. A report into the effect of this showed a net negative outcome for the environment – the replacement bags have to be used many times more for the same outcome (and this assumes the single use bag is only used once), sales of plastic bin liners increased by well over 100%.

Stephen J

6th August 2019 at 8:28 am

Interesting to note that fishing nets, which are supposed to snag the wild creatures of the sea, comprise half of the oceanic plastic pollution.

But that is not my point…

… which is that, whilst there are some unfortunate incidents around the sites where this stuff gathers, in general it is forming a store of fuel for the production of kinetic energy.

One day, one of the big oil or plastic companies, will discover a way of converting this waste into usable energy for some purpose, and there will be a mad rush to collect it all.

Jerry Owen

6th August 2019 at 8:46 am

Stephen J
Can you elaborate on your ‘kinetic energy’ assertion it sounds interesting ?
The wonder of human kind is that it knows no bounds of ingenuity. It wasn’t that long ago in the history of mankind that coal was being carved for jewellery , now it is a vital heat and energy source we depend on as a species.

Stephen J

6th August 2019 at 12:53 pm

Not much to it really. It is the result of the combustion of fossil (or sometimes, though not very efficiently at present, “alternative”) fuels in order to make something move. That moving “something” is called kinetic.

I know that the oils and other fuels that were employed in the making of this plastic are currently not extractable in a cost efficient manner, and so, our agents of recycling find ways of avoiding their stated responsibility and it ends up in the oceans.

One day, there will be a cost efficient way to do that, and one of the energy giants will start a “gold rush” to hoover up all that stuff that is handily laying around, pretending to be indestructible.

It is common practise in the marketplace.

Stephen Gates

6th August 2019 at 7:58 am

The point of replacing single use plastic straws with paper straws is to get the plastic out of the system. Plastic straws are very often thoughtlessly discarded and end up in our oceans where they destroy sea life.

mikki p

6th August 2019 at 8:13 am

The point is that the benefit of getting rid of plastic straws is less than the cost. The net benefits to the environment are minuscule although the benefit to corporate image and people’s self-image in regards to saving the environment are large. On the other hand the cost of inconvenience is large. This kind of policy making is typical, except on a large scale the costs are often fuel poverty and a huge transfer of wealth from poor to rich.

Jerry Owen

6th August 2019 at 8:36 am

Stephen Gates
You are wrong, the vast majority of plastic straws end up in landfill . Straws are used in restaurants pubs cafe’s etc. their waste goes into large plastic bins then emptied into lorries and taken to landfill.

Stephen Gates

6th August 2019 at 10:17 am

The problem is people tossing straws out of cars, and leaving them on beaches.

Jerry Owen

6th August 2019 at 12:42 pm

Stephen Gates
‘People toss straws out of car windows on the beech and they destroy sea life’.
Absolute rubbish. There are few places you can toss rubbish from a car straight into the sea, further the tide will push most back.
I hate to say it but you’re clutching at straws.

Jerry Owen

6th August 2019 at 7:09 am

We go to MacDonald’s once every couple of months or so, and I enjoy my big Mac and strawberry shake. The last two visits I have had to endure the awful mushy straws. The shakes require a lot of suction to get the semi liquid and vast amounts of calories up the straw, the result is that the straw goes flat and closes with about 3 to four inches of shake left.
The texture size and taste of the straws I should imagine would make some people gag.
A dreadful decision by such a powerful and popular company it has to be said. No doubt our super green government will impose a straw tax ( so very 17 century ! ) And we will end up having to supply our own straws.

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