From plastic straws to paper straws — A real environmental action or a commercial gimmick?

McDonald’s by Mike Mozart (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Do you find any difference when you enjoy the cold drink in McDonald’s compared to one year ago? Do you pay attention to the small change of straw materials?

A silent change: from plastic straws to paper straws

After paper straws launched into the UK successfully in 2018, the directors of McDonald’s Australia stated that over 970 restaurants in Australia would gradually stop using plastic straws by 2020. McDonald’s insisted that this straw material innovation is not a forced response to plastic bans. CEO Paul Pomroy said that this change is an initiative campaign to less plastic pollution, which satisfies the customer requirement of sustainable alternatives as well. Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and other multinational food giants prepare to follow the action of McDonald’s.

No plastic straw by Marco Verch (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Unfortunately, some customers doubt that ‘no plastic straw’ is just a commercial gimmick of large enterprises rather than a real environmental action. What are the facts?

The adverse impact of plastic straws on the environment

The annual consumption of plastic straws is enormous. More than 500 million plastic straws are thrown into dustbins per day in America, which could fill in 125 large shuttle buses. In Australia, over 10 million plastic straws are used per day. CleanUp, a non-government environmental organization, reported that plastic straws accounted for 7.5% of all plastic rubbish pickup in the last voluntary clean-up activity.

Most plastic straws are only used once, which lasts for 15 to 30 minutes during the whole lifetime. However, the total time of plastic straw decomposition will up to 200 years. What is worse, plastic straws will gradually fragment into microplastics and accumulate in animals (e.g. fishes, turtles, and seabirds) along food chains, which threatens ecosystems, especially for the ocean.

Although McDonald’s claimed that their plastic straws are recyclable, the fact is that recyclers are reluctant to recycle plastic straws. One reason is that the costs of reusing synthetic straw materials are higher than directly producing straws with new materials. Another reason is that straws will fall through cracks of the conveyor belt, which leads to the facility breakdown.

Paper straws: new opportunities

Bright colourful paper straws by Marco Verch (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Paper straws provide new options to reduce plastic pollution. However, some customers complained that they would no longer enjoy cold drinks, particularly smoothies, due to the nondurability of the new straw. Some upset customers started an online petition to use plastic straws again, which had more than 50,000 signatures. These opponents begin to carp at this new type of straw.

The first critical point is that most paper straws are none recyclable. Some processors add plastic coatings on the inner layer of the straw to improve paper performance in liquid. The lining prevents straws from recycling. Others use condensed paper to increase durability, which is too thick to be processed in current facilities. In some regions, straws contaminated by food (e.g. milk and juice) are refused by recyclers. So, the final destinations of most paper straws are landfills.

Some opponents also point out that the production of paper straws will consume more energy and resources than plastics. The excess consumption leads to higher costs (3 cents per product) than traditional straws (1 cent per product). These opponents worry that enterprises would upload these extra costs to consumers.

The petition to bring back plastic straws is shortsighted. Papers decompose much faster than plastics. One report pointed the biodegradation or compost of real paper straws only lasts one to two months. And the complete paper breakdown takes less than six months in the ocean. In other words, paper straws are far safer in ecosystems than plastics that takes 200 years to decompose. The technical advance will provide more available facilities at lower prices for recycling in the future. And a responsible company is voluntary to achieve excellence for the society.

Other solutions

Due to the high consumption of energy and resources, paper straw is only expediency. Public awareness improvement is the ultimate solution to plastic straw problems. For restaurants and retailers, it will be better only to provide straws when consumers require. For consumers, they can try to drink without straws or with reusable ones (e.g. steel, glass or bamboo straws). If consumers have to use paper straws, please not throw them in the dustbins. Please collect and bury paper straws into the gardens, and these straws will transfer into fertilizers to nourish plants.


18 Responses to “From plastic straws to paper straws — A real environmental action or a commercial gimmick?”

  1. Sijia Yang says:

    Paper straws can be a very good solution, but maybe it’s worth to improve the technology to reduce the cost, or have to force the commercial gimmicks to increase their cost.

  2. Liqun Yang says:

    Yes, some paper straws are really hard to use, especially when they are in the drinks for a long time. It definitely will be a good change to drink without straws.

  3. Liqun Yang says:

    Yes, so I think maybe one NGO will introduce a certification system with a specific logo to identify the final destination of straws in the future.

  4. Liqun Yang says:

    Thank you very much!

  5. Liqun Yang says:

    Really good ideas! If they can provide a discount, more customers will volunteer to take environmental actions!

  6. Liqun Yang says:

    Yes, the world will be better if we all quite more plastic products. And if everyone will use the reusable straws, maybe these restaurants will feel happy to stop providing straws. At least, this will help them reduce lots of costs.

  7. Liqun Yang says:

    Yes! The paper straws could be regarded as a seed of environmental actions. Maybe some people will take further actions when they realize why some companies decided to change.

  8. Liqun Yang says:

    It is a very good action to reuse plastic straws! But we can also try to drink without straws, which will further reduce the impacts on the environment.

  9. Liqun Yang says:

    Yes, agree! Only when making sure the innovation is effective, we can support it. Otherwise, we should play the role to promote better change.

  10. Yilin Zhao says:

    Very interesting blog! I heard that there is a straw that is made of a mixture of glass and plastic, and is equipped with a straw brush of the corresponding size. This type of straw can be used repeatedly, and a part of the plastic can be reused. However, the straw brush may be needed as well as cleaning liquid, which sounds cumbersome and may be difficult to promote on a large scale.

  11. Devanshi says:

    This is really interesting! I always thought it was a bit unnecessary to introduce paper straws – why not just not use straws? Paper straws are quite hard to drink with, and I think most people do not require straws so it definitely makes sense to reduce waste in general and only use them if they need to be used.

  12. Jemima James says:

    This was a very interesting read! I liked your solutions at the end, however, do you think that people would bury paper straws without knowing if they are bio-degradable or not? As you said in your article often the straws can be lined with plastic to increase durability.

  13. Hussain says:

    A really cool post regarding environment sustainability and awareness regarding plastic straws. I like the way hyperlinks are incorporated in the post for supplemental information on the environmental effects of plastic straws. Really informative.

  14. Christina Crachi says:

    I have also noticed that plastic straws have become a big issue lately (well they’ve always been an issue but now people are acting on it). I personally don’t like using paper straws either- but would be happy with what I was given if McDonalds went this way.
    Considering that they are still using paper straws that contain plastic, I do believe it is more of a ‘publicity stunt’ and a way to get ahead of their competitors with environmentally conscious people.
    The best thing I believe would be to offer a 10c discount to drinks that don’t require a straw and sell metal straws.

  15. Ryan Jones says:

    It’s a shame the amount of outrage that goes to waste towards big corporations and their use of plastic straws, when compared to other practices and forms of environmental damage these companies cause plastic straws are negligible.

    However, an easy solution to this is to follow suit in what supermarkets have done and stop giving customers single use plastics. In the same way that you should bring your reusable bag from home when you go shopping, bring your straw when you go to maccas!

  16. Rachel Caddy says:

    I’ve been wondering about this issue. Paper straws seem like the better option, but wouldn’t it be awesome if it was habit for people to bring re-usable’s with them

  17. loik says:

    Interesting read! I’m surprised that paper straws aren’t recyclable – I always thought that was their motivation behind changing to them. For me, I always thought this change was a necessary evil since I tend to drink things slowly and the paper straw would often be degraded by then… On the other hand, our family tends to wash our plastic straws and reuse them at home, until they break which is when we throw them away. With that being said, it still holds true that paper degrades much faster than plastic in the environment – but I never knew they could turn into fertiliser since I thought they wouldn’t have nutrients that plants need. That’s a good thing to know and I’ll take that away from this great post~

  18. Zhao Yuan says:

    Inspiring article. In fact, a lot of the things we do in the name of improving the environment backfires and it’s just a combination of commercial tricks and self-deceiving. They often have unexpected side-affects, So, we all should be careful and scientific before we rush in to support some new activity to contribute to the environment. At least be very sure it works first.