We all know the multinational fast food chain McDonald’s and in recent years they have published various initiatives they have taken to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. In 2019, they decided to replace their plastic straws with paper ones across stores in the UK and Ireland. The realisation that they use around 1.8 million straws a day in the UK alone motivated them to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics. However, this appears to be just another example of corporate greenwashing as not only do consumers tend to use more straws as a result of them dissolving before their drink could be finished, but they are also unrecyclable! Maybe it’s time to just ditch straws altogether…
The roll-out of paper straws, at first glance, appears to be a step in the right direction. This is because it is perceived that paper is biodegradable and can be naturally broken down, and won’t end up being swallowed by turtles, littering beautiful beaches or floating in the oceans. They claim that the new sustainable straws are made from fibre that is sourced from sustainably managed forests and 100% of the paper used is PEFC certified. However, McDonald’s has failed to prioritise the planet’s needs by making their paper straws unrecyclable! This is because they made the paper straws thicker and stronger so, despite being made of fully recyclable materials, their waste solution providers are unable to process them and the straws must be put in general waste. It is clear that this fast-food chain continues to prioritise profits and growth as they redesigned the straws after ‘customers had challenges with … ease of use and durability’. It ultimately boils down to the fact that plastic isn’t the problem – it’s plastic waste. But a quick fix like the introduction of paper straws (that cannot be recycled) is not always the answer. Rather than continuing to prioritise profits, McDonald’s needs to be investing in other materials to manufacture their straws if they wish to continue using them. This includes materials like bamboo, hay or plant-based plastic - all of which are biodegradable and, thus, more sustainable.
Despite the extensive ‘Our Planet’ section on the McDonald’s website, there is little information as to how the paper straws are made. They publish extensive documents of their environmentally focussed strategies alongside many positive statistics and examples. However, there is an important detail that McDonald’s tries to hide in the footnotes surrounding the use of perflourinated compounds (PFCs). These are chemicals that are used as additives in many everyday products, including food packaging and straws. Despite McDonald’s claiming that they do not intentionally include these compounds during the process, they add that primary fibre-based packaging in products that are packaged off-site is excluded in this claim. This includes wood stirrers, cutlery, tray liners, STRAWS and other locally sourced items. By McDonald’s trying to hide this information and the numerous legal cases they have been involved in, it makes us question what else they fail to mention. Improving their transparency by not trying to hide the less environmentally-friendly aspects of the business (which we know definitely exist), will help to gain the trust of the consumer - benefitting both McDonald’s and the customer through greater loyalty and engagement. However, this needs to go hand-in-hand with actually more sustainable initiatives.
McDonald’s is one of the world’s largest fast-food chains, serving millions of customers daily in over 100 countries. The sheer size of the company not only gives them the responsibility to become more sustainable and help influence consumer choices but also gives them the power to do so. However, it seems they do a lot of talking, but not a lot of action. They publish many documents on their progress and how they are contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but after examining these claims it is proven that they continue to prioritise profits and business growth. It is clear how damaging the fast-food industry is to the environment – McDonald’s continues to be one of the main contributors.
When looking at the paper straws more closely, the two main suppliers (Transcend Packaging and Huhtamaki) appear to be fairly sustainable. Both companies recognise that sustainability is not something that can be done overnight by simply eliminating these damaging industries like fast-food chains. Instead, they believe that things like food packaging are highly depended on to sustain our current lifestyles, but we can take small steps to make these everyday items more environmentally-friendly. They claim that the paper straws are manufactured in facilities with highest safety standards, that have been tested and certified for food safety across Europe, China and the US. They are also committed to providing a safe and healthy working environment for all employees by working towards a zero-accident culture and complying with all applicable labour laws. The two companies have been praised for their progressive outlook and innovations within the industry as well as their positive treatment of workers.
However, Huhtamaki’s 2019 Sustainability Report appears to contradict this claim. It applauses their new product innovations that have created recyclable package, yet it simply states that their ‘straws have been successful in meeting demand from our customers’. This is due to customer reviews and complaints I mentioned earlier which has resulted in unrecyclable paper straws. Highlighting the trade-off between consumer demands and a sustainable future, Huhtamaki and McDonald’s have shown, once again, to favour profits and their own business over the planet’s needs.