MacDonalds “strawgate” – a lessons for destinations?

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Thankfully nothing to worry about, it’s one of their new paper straws! Is “Strawgate” and all the faff about paper or plastic straws serving to obscuring the real problems here?

Introduction. Member’s reaction to my flag waving around the potential introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) suggests that some (many?) destinations are already wrestling with the design and implementation of their own single use item free policies, mostly aimed towards, or exclusively at, single use plastics.  In many cases these are being adopted as part of Council wide schemes applicable to all publicly owned venues, (offices, schools, theatres etc.) any commercial activities undertaken on public land (concessions ice cream vans etc.) and for publicly facilitated events on or sometimes off public land, where Councils obviously have a much greater ability to rapidly influence or regulate via their own procurement policies, commercial contracts and local agreements. Not all will be formulated with the visitor economy foremost in mind.

In almost every destination there will also be plenty of examples of private sector initiatives involving big, national corporate players, like MacDonalds, through to local SME and micro businesses.  Looking at all these public and private sector developments in the round the broad theory seems to present few problems, the intent is always unquestionable well-meant but the policy direction and effective implementation can, it seems, be fraught. Other than in a few very small locations, I don’t sense that there are too many coordinated, holistic destination wide, “single use” strategies in place yet, but that’s hardly surprising, given the scale of such an undertaking in a destination of any size and, thus, complexity.

To help those who may now have to engage in planning for issues like a future DRS, or are already engaged in delivering local single use item policies, I thought it useful to expand on the cautionary tale of the McDonalds straw. A tale of a big UK and international brand that is, among a host of others big businesses, trying to deal with a huge physical and PR problem in the most cost-effective, efficient and least business disruptive way.  As MacDonalds are a big, ubiquitous national player, the tale can useful be used to illustrate that “recycling”, often an ill-defined catch-all phrase, isn’t ever a simple process, that even the most seemingly sensible actions can have conflicting consequences and that these conflicts can and will be misrepresented, especially when viewed through the typically, overly simplistic prism of public perception and popular media incited debate.

The note is intended as another thought piece designed to: stimulate debate, if it is needed, to evidence that your apparently local problems are by no means localised and to help inform or defend local approaches and actions, if that is needed, as I know it often can be when dealing with such potentially contentious issues across a wide body of local opinion.

Strawgate. Until late summer 2018 MacDonalds apparently distributed 1.8m plastic straws a day in the UK and Ireland, made of a recyclable plastic.  Almost all plastics are recyclable, but some types of plastics and all manner of items made from different plastics aren’t necessarily recycled at any scale, largely due to practical or economic considerations. Last September in response to news of a planned, future UK ban on plastic straws and drinks stirrers and in the face of a wave of “Blue Planet” inspired popular public concern, MacDonalds announced an immediate, voluntarily changed to a new card-based straw.  A proactive response that overnight eliminated a vast number of single use plastic items and a move that, at the time, could hardly be faulted.  Other major fast food outlet and casual dining companies did or have since done the same. Had it not then been for customer complaints about milkshakes and soggy straws the tale would have ended there. MacDonalds would have achieved a significant PR coup, simply by doing something that in all likelihood they would have been compelled to do in a year or two and, in the process, acquiring a strongly evidenced defence for its environmental policy credentials.

In May 2019 after customer complaints about soggy thin straws, MacDonalds decided to introduce a thicker version.  All was well until late July (?) when the national press (the Sun) got hold of internal memo instructing staff to dispose of the new thicker straws in the in-store general waste (that is incinerated) and not the recycling bins (that will go for further mechanical and/or manual sorting to extract recyclable materials and remove non-recyclable or non-economical viable recyclables for alternative disposal).  It is far from clear from press coverage, the degree to which in-store staff actively sort the rubbish that customers are encouraged to put in to the in-store bins, or whether this was just a simple instruction to staff when, for example, clearing tables to try and avoid putting the new thicker straws in the recycling stream? I suspect it is the latter.

Whatever the detail behind the instruction, the implication is clear: the thicker straws aren’t currently being targeted for recycling and are therefore not being recycled; but what isn’t clear is whether the thin card or the earlier plastic straws, that presumably previously went in the recycling bins, actually went forward to be sorted for eventual recycling or for sorting for alternative disposal? A recycling bin is only ever a first, albeit a critical step in a series of sorting processes for potential recycling; it is not a guarantee of it.  Both MacDonalds and the press are understandably silent on all of these fascinating technicalities, as they probably don’t add much to a good, simple, popular press yarn and they would only serve to keep the story going, thus, helping dig the PR, Pooh trap* even deeper for MacDonalds.

The headline press stories falling from the leaked instruction are essential that: MacDonalds, in the pursuit of good environmental PR, has replaced 1.8m recyclable plastic straws used a day with 1.8m paper-based straw that now have to be incinerated, rather than recycled, as (presumably) all the plastic ones previously were.  Taken at face value, that does sound pretty dumb.

MacDonalds initial response, that the thicker straws were “not recyclable”, prompted the straw’s manufactures to leap to their product’s defence; pointing out that they are entirely recyclable, if only MacDonalds’ waste management contract and their processing methods were set up to recover and recycle them.  MacDonalds then had to agreed that the issue was their recovery process and that they would now working to address this.  In doing so, they hinted that the straw’s thickness somehow hindered recovery but they still don’t confirm or deny that in future, once recovered, they will be recycled; however you choose to define “recycled” (returned to a raw material and reused in new production, composted, burnt to produce energy, etc.?).

Unless and until the supply and waste management chains are legally obliged to recover and recycle everything that can be, the problem with all technically recyclable items will remain whether it is practically and financially viable to do so. The only real remaining influence, and the one presumably now exercising minds at MacDonalds’ headquarters, being public perception and the impact that has on the brand.  To the extent that it will almost certainly forces some improvement in “recycling” and a more genuinely inclusive, future environmental strategy at MacDonalds , while also give other big corporates cause to pause for thought, the press coverage has to be welcomed, even if some of the facts and conclusions are questionable.

Straws in the wind. It is all very bad PR for MacDonalds and, to my mind, all largely irrelevant to the actual issues, they and we all face around: our reliance on plastics, the prevalence of single use items whatever they are made of, the genuine concern amongst a growing percentage of the public about plastics in particular, recycling in general and the obvious need for some ill-defined, someone to do an equally ill-defined something to eradicate it, preferable tomorrow. Sadly, the popular public concern is not always backed with a detailed understanding of the competing complexities and, thus, their immediate concerns can often be tackled by well-intended but half-hearted action: like for example, swopping billions of plastic for paper straws?

Whether intentionally or not such headline activities do, at least in the short term, serve to obscure bigger issues for example: paper isn’t an impact neutral product, it uses a raw material that has to be produced and moved, the straw still has to be manufactured and while paper straws might not endure for anything like as long in the environment, hundreds of millions of them will still end up littering our towns, countryside, coast, rivers, lakes and the sea. In their case slowly rotting away, rather than break down into ever smaller plastic pieces like their predecessors. In this example paper, beats plastic, but surely far fewer straws in the environment in the first-place always trumps both? Way more importantly than fretting about straws though, is the realisation that almost all the 1.8m straws distributed by MacDonalds a day (a figure I find still find hard to believe) are currently accompanied by a single use plastic lid and a disposable paper or plastic cup,  Each containing far more raw material and having far greater potential environmental impacts than the humble little straws themselves.

The problem I perceive isn’t the large percentage of straws (lids, cups, cardboard cup carrying trays, happy meal boxes, burger wrappers, napkins, sauce sachets, uneaten food, etc.) captured on-site in MacDonalds. That is surely their commercial and PR problem and one that is already entirely within their control, not least because they are capturing a relatively limited range of item and doing so in huge and, therefore, more commercially viable quantities.  In-house waste is also far more easily identified, corralled and, thus, can and is already to a degree more easily regulated and checked.  The real issue for destinations has to be the very large but unquantified number of straws and the much else besides that never sees the inside of a MacDonald’s bin but goes out the door and ends up, at best, in the public waste system and, at worst, dumped into the local environment.

By changing the material, MacDonalds have altered the cumulative environmental impact of billions of straws that have and will continue to enter the wider environment and that, even if recovered, have a very limited chance of ever being recycled. So, while MacDonalds deserve a pat on the back, it has also to be said that they haven’t begun to really address the environmental and economic impacts of a significant proportion of the huge quantities of single use items, used to underpin their very successful business model.  If anyone doubts this is true, I suggest they take a walk or cycle ride along any road, track or path almost anywhere in the UK and play a game of spot the discarded MacDonalds branded packaging.  It’s depressingly easily done.

What MacDonalds and their peers haven’t done in responding to growing public anxieties about plastic, is tackle the core issues, like why is it is apparent necessary to use 1.8m straws a day in the first place?  Nor does it seem that are they actively trying to do much to help to reduce the impact of the vast amount of waste of all types that goes out the door in the hands of customers?  To that extent introducing card straws may have been a bit of a PR smoke screen?  Highlighting your positive policy on straws and then unfortunately having to defending your in-house waste management process and policies does nothing to deal with the far great scale and quantity of all the other single use packaging and containers used. It does absolutely nothing to help public authorities and private land and property owners to handle the vast quantities of waste, either properly disposed of into the public waste stream or improperly dropped and discarded as litter.  Until on-the-go focused private enterprise is compelled to do more to reduce and recover the biproduct of their trade, we are going to have an ever-increasing problem, despite all manner of apparently well intended environmental policies and actions that have and will continue to be implemented in the future.

Sadly, while a lot of the public may be genuinely concerned about single use items, a lot also love the convenience they offer.  Consequently, there is currently no sign that explosion in the growth in single use, usage is slowing, let alone there being an overall reduction and eventual reversal.  Radical reduction should always be the gold standard we aim for; meanwhile reality suggests that for the foreseeable future, the solution probably lies in far greater and more effective recycling of the ever-greater quantities of the single use items consumed.  An effective UK wide DRS for plastic bottles, metal cans, glass bottles, cartons and, hopefully, paper and plastic cups would, in such pessimistic circumstances, seem like a very good first step on the road towards far greater physical waste and environmental recovery.  I know that this will have significant implications for business, but on balance I think the need to get a grip on waste and the direct and indirect benefits of doing so in destinations far outweighs the business penalties. Do the majority of destination management interests agree?  I know quite a few do, which has informed my evolving views but a wider reality check amongst other destination members may still be needed?

What lessons, if any?  Having spoken to colleagues in various destinations we, like MacDonalds, are all in danger of being drawn into applying an over simplest approach to single use plastic and other material reduction and recycling.  We may also be in danger of trying to do the right things but potentially for the wrong reasons, for example to be seen to be doing something to appease popular public reaction, regardless of how effective it really might be.  Simply replacing single use items with other single use items made of arguably more sustainable material, as witnessed in the tale of the MacDonalds’ straw, is only a partial answer. As is collecting plastics to recycle without ensuring that there is a seamless and sustainable pathway to a viable reuse; out of sight may be out of mind but for how much longer is that sustainable?   Focusing on a single small item like the humble straws, whilst trying to turn a blind eye to its all too obvious big brothers the cups and lids that accompany them isn’t a long-term strategy either.  In practice, it is also always worth bearing in mind that nothing is truly recyclable unless and until if it is actually is recycled.

I accept entirely the argument at destination level that starting somewhere and taking small steps, tackle what’s easiest first, may be the most, possibly the only, practical way forward. However, unless we ensure that it’s a planned series of small steps, one discernibly following on from the other, destinations will not individually or jointly be in a position to evidence to the public that we have or are making any really meaningful progress.  My best guess is that in the next couple of years some of the seemingly cutting-edge policies being introduced in destinations now, will start to look a little weak in both their detail and practical application.  The hope has to be that in the meantime, unlike MacDonalds, destinations and destination management interests will avoid falling headfirst in to PR Pooh traps*, and especially those that arise from well-intended, but potentially on the hoof policy making decisions around what are complex and evolving strategic issues.


*A hole you dig yourself, then inadvertently fall and trap yourself in.


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