Yes, paper straws are ‘recyclable’, but so are paper/plastic laminated cups, cartons, sandwich packs and almost everything, but that does not mean they actually are recycled.
The confusion was highlighted this week by a leaked internal McDonald’s communication stating that their paper straws are not currently being recycled and are instead being sent for incineration and turned into energy along with some of its other waste.
McDonald’s and other retailers are currently not recycling straws for multiple reasons. Such as they might be contaminated with food, they have been designed to be as water-resistant as possible using a special food-grade adhesive (which safely holds the layers together), or simply they are not being collected in the correct bin.
Paper mills generally don’t want contaminated fibres with food, plastic or anything that makes them difficult to separate and re-pulp. This has always been the case, but still the word ‘recyclable’ has confused people to believe that all these things are being recycled when they are not. This is clearly wrong and the packaging industry needs to start using the correct terminology which is not misleading whatever the material/s.
So why not move back to plastic straws?
Plastic straws will be legally banned in Europe by 2021. Let’s take a closer look at the supposed ‘recyclable’ plastic straw.
They are generally made from polypropylene, which is a highly versatile and sturdy material – ideal for making straws, but the material is currently difficult to recycle with estimates in the UK less than 2% by weight is actually being recycled.
It is also worth noting that even a plastic straw, once contaminated with food, is difficult to recycle not to mention also being made from a non-renewable material source (oil), which if not recovered and recycled properly can take 100’s of years to breakdown and when it does it produces harmful micro-plastics, which can enter the food chain and cause risks to our health.
In the UK our waste infrastructure is broken and needs fixing quickly to capture all valuable packaging materials to avoid pollution on a global scale. This needs investment, legislation and joined-up thinking by all key stakeholders.
Ian Bates Co-founder and CEO REELbrands