This is a transcript of What's the beef with McDonald's paper straws? as first broadcast on 26 April 2019. Presented by Beth Rose.
BETH - It probably hasn't escaped your notice that climate change is one of 2019's hot topics. We've had pink ships anchored of Oxford Circus in London and Swedish teenage sensation, Greta Thunberg has been making headlines wherever she goes. But there is one story bucking the trend: a petition has been started to get McDonald's to stop its rollout of paper straws in the UK and Ireland. And guess what, reinstate plastic straws. What? Well, we thought we'd talk straws. A big issue or is it a little issue? A challenge for the environment but a necessity for a lot of disabled people to drink independently and comfortably with.
This is BBC Ouch. I'm Beth Rose and around the London table is Damon Rose.
BETH - We're definitely not related.
BETH - And Niamh Hughes who is both appearing on this podcast and doing all of the technical stuff. And in Scotland our Scotland bureau we have Emma Tracey.
EMMA - Hello.
BETH - Oh, and a very big disclaimer: this is one of our chatty podcasts; none of us have any scientific background at all. These are just ideas and thoughts so take them with a pinch of salt and get involved.
So, the big question, straws, what's the deal?
DAMON- It all stems back to a video of a sea turtle, we think, whereby we saw a straw being removed [laughs] - sorry, it's not funny - removed from its nose. It's awful in fact. It had embedded itself four inches in we think.
BETH - We should just say, so in this McD story, the fast food chain supplies 1.8 million straws to its UK outlets every single day. But in this paper straw rollout there have already been creates. So, the petition creator is a guy called Martin Reed. He says the paper straws dissolve as you drink them, and others have been saying you can't drink a McDonald's milkshake through a paper straw; which I do agree with because it is challenging.
EMMA - Why can't you?
DAMON- You can barely get them up a plastic straw, which is nice and rigid and supportive and helpful. And if you take the straw out, I've done this, and you take the lid off and try and drink the milkshake you tip it back, doesn't come out, you tip it back some more, it doesn't come out, you tip it back some more and then it avalanches onto your face. And that's why you need a straw.
BETH - So, the good thing with a plastic straw is the fact that they are bendy and flexible, you can reposition them, they are cheap, they are light and portable, you could buy them anywhere. So, they kind of seem to solve a lot of problems. And now here we are about to ban them.
On the line we have a straw user, Esther Webber. Hello Esther.
ESTHER - Hi, hello.
BETH- So, Esther is The Times' political reporter but you're also a straw user. You've got cerebral palsy?
ESTHER - Yes, that's right. Even though this condition is obviously making waves at the moment this issue has been running for a couple of years now I think since awareness has risen.
I would say that my experience in London is that a lot of bars and restaurants are phasing out plastic straws, and I use straws daily whenever I'm drinking tea or a drink in a bar, and it is a lot harder to come by plastic straws these days. When I tweeted about this, saying that there shouldn't be a stigma attached to using a plastic straw I had lots of people informing me that there were alternatives available, which of course I'm well aware of. Some of the alternatives don't work as well for me personally and I'm sure for others. So, I think we just need to be a bit nuanced, be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
EMMA - Can you explain to us exactly why you need a straw?
ESTHER - For me personally it's because of my shaky hands and lack of fine motor control, so I actually wouldn't be able to raise the cup or glass to my mouth without spilling. In that situation a straw is a very important aid.
EMMA - Why are some of the alternatives not suitable to you?
ESTHER- With respect to the McDonald's situation a lot of the paper straws become soggy. And the other thing is some of the textures lighter, so there's a bamboo based I've tried, which is pretty good I would say. But the problem with that one is there's no bend in that straw, and I do find it useful to be able to position the drink the way I want it.
The other option is a metal straw and I think I find that the worst of all because it's just very rigid and it knocks against your teeth, and it's basically not a pleasant drinking experience.
DAMON- You mentioned back there, Esther, that you use a straw to drink hot drinks as well. When I was in hospital a few weeks ago somebody brought me a cup of coffee and they brought me it with a straw. I thought oh well, in for a penny in for a pound, and I tried it. The liquid went straight into the back of my throat and really burned very badly.
ESTHER - If you find it I would say [0:05:30?] so I know to leave it for a reasonable amount of time and also to take any hot drinks in gradually rather than attacking all at once. People always say to me, oh won't the hot drink melt the straw, or won't you get really drunk through drinking alcohol through it. And I have to say I've been doing this for a few years [laughs] so most of the time I know what I'm doing.
BETH - Can you still buy plastic straws?
ESTHER- It's very interesting, well maybe just to straw users, personally I feel like I try to do my bit because I wash and recycle plastic straws. So, because of that it's been ages since I've actually had to buy a whole new pack, and I couldn't find any when I went out. I think it tends to be smaller shops now that are still stocking them; but certainly the two big supermarkets near me didn't have them. I would say there is a real sea change going on in terms of the stigma now being so bad that most big chains and restaurants don't stock them.
BETH - Is that something that you're worried about?
ESTHER - Before I used to feel a bit relaxed about bringing straws out with me; I knew if I didn't have one then I could probably pick one up. But now I'm a lot more militant about making sure I have one with me at all times. But I think yeah, it is something we need to just be aware of and have a conversation about as big chains are making these decisions, and also government is trying to disincentives' the use of disposal plastic. So, yeah I think it's something that's going to become more of a concern.
BETH - Are you hoping that someone comes up with an ideal solution or have you got something on your mind that would be the perfect straw if you had the means to develop something?
ESTHER - It would be wonderful if someone developed a straw that really mimicked the behaviour of a plastic straw with a bend in it. That would be great. So, yeah, I'm open to all suggestions but I still haven't found the perfect reusable straw.
BETH - I feel like at this point it's a good time to say that the flexi-straw was actually first marketed in 1947 to hospitals. From making something accessible we're now making it inaccessible to a lot of people.
Thanks so much Esther.
ESTHER - Thank you.
BETH - Bye.
ESTHER - Bye.
DAMON- Isn't that interesting non-disabled people wanting the things that disabled people used to have, like accessible loos?
BETH - Tech firms often start off by trying to make things accessible, and then by default it actually becomes a better product for everyone. But when it comes to straws that seems a bit of a throwback. We've called Niamh over, and when we had our production chat, if you can call it that, you mentioned that actually straws is a really easy thing for people just to say, okay it's plastic, let's get rid of it. People understand it.
NIAMH - People know what straws are. They can sort of take or leave a plastic straw. They know that if - I'm talking about non-disabled people here by the way - if they have a cold or a hot drink they know that they can have it with a straw or they can have it without; it's not 100% necessary. So, it's quite easy to write off something like that.
DAMON - It's a little lovely luxury.
NIAMH - Yeah.
DAMON- Because when I was a kid - I mean, I'm significantly older than all of you lot, very significantly - in the 70s I swear we never had plastic straws; we had paper straws all the time. And of course what would happen… I don't even know, have you even used a paper straw you lot?
NIAMH - Yeah.
BETH - Yeah.
DAMON- You have, so you know that when you suck through it the top of it sort of gradually collapses in on itself.
BETH - And also it sticks to your upper lip.
NIAMH - Yeah.
DAMON - Yeah, and it means that it's hard for liquid to come through. In fact regularly back then you were given a couple of straws.
NIAMH - McDonald's obviously put out a response, or rather it was Mark Varney from Transcend Packaging, which is one of the paper straw makers, he said, there has to be a compromise when making a product that is due to last for 30 to 40 minutes for drinking compared to 150 years.
DAMON- I think 30 to 40 minutes do you spend that amount of time with a drink anyway?
NIAMH - No, maybe like ten.
BETH - People are getting quite militant though. We were looking at this globally. My favourite one is American Airlines have limited straws from in-flight beverages, instead they will give you a stir stick. I mean, what is even the point?
EMMA - It's for gin and tonic and stuff, they have realised that many people use the straw just to stir up their gin and tonic or whatever.
NIAMH - That is true!
BETH - But don't you just normally put your finger in, give the ice cubes a nudge?
EMMA - Well, a lot of people it would be like ugh. I have to say I don't understand why they can't just not give you a straw as standard. I used to find straws as standard really complicated because if you've got quite a wide-topped glass I often had a thing where I'd drink out of the glass and I'd get a straw up my nose or in my eye.
EMMA - And actually last week I thought there was a straw in my drink, drank out of it, and it was the stalk of a lemon leaf.
DAMON- Oh my goodness me, Emma.
EMMA - I know!
DAMON- That is incredibly blind.
EMMA - That is incredibly ridiculous. So, yeah actually not being given a straw is helpful to me in some ways. So, why not just have the option? I just don't understand. Because there's a great video about disabled people and straws by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, and in it she says that straws are 0.025% of plastic waste. When I was on a plane recently the amount of plastic lids, plastic cutlery, it's just incredible.
DAMON- France are banning that next year I believe. I believe they're the only country who are banning things like plastic plates and cutlery.
BETH - Well, one of my favourites was Seattle, the city in America, it has banned plastic straws but it's given disabled people a year-long exemption.
NIAMH - Oh, that's nice.
EMMA - It's interesting because people really don't understand why some of the reusables don't work. Esther talked about the inconvenience and not being a nice drinking solution and not being flexible enough; but there's also, as Jessica said in her video, allergy issues, like silicon you could be allergic to, all that kind of stuff. But there's also the issue where lots of people have someone with them or have someone who can help them clean the straw. Because you have loads of different drinks in a day, don't you? But a lot of people don't have that luxury so people who are being independent, don't have a PA with them or whatever, they can't have the dexterity to actually clean the straw to reuse it and it's going to get really manky, isn't it? But I think that's really hard for people to understand. And because there are so few of us and we don't have a huge voice it's really hard to get that across very clearly, isn't it?
NIAMH - There's a really good table I found online on Twitter via a disability activist based in Canada, her name's Sarah Smith, and she wrote this table. And down the left-hand side she's written metal, bamboo, glass, silicon, acrylic, paper, pasta, and finally single-use.
NIAMH - And across the table it says, choking hazard, injury risk, not positionable, costly for consumer and not high temp safe. And the only material that has none of these is single-use plastic.
BETH - Do you think we're going to get a stage where it will be prescription only?
NIAMH - Probably.
EMMA - What do they call it, a special medical item? Penny Pepper was writing about this in The Guardian, and she was like, the last thing I want to be is even more special, this is going to special me even more. She also talked about interesting things around the environment, so she's a disability activist and she was involved in a lot of environment stuff in the 70s. She said, I have to use plastic straws and baby wipes every day, and the prohibitive cost of biodegradable wipes and other types of straws means that it's my only option and it's sometimes other people's always their only option. So, there are so many elements to this, isn't there?
DAMON- I'm imagining pharmacies selling packets of prescription medical straws with like cleaning implements with it and fluids and instructions and things like that - to the point where people are going to be really embarrassed to go over to that part of the pharmacy and pick one up.
BETH - If it became a medical thing people would be just like oh sure, whatever.
DAMON- Just look round the pub now, look, look, no one's using a straw now. Ooh there's someone using a straw.
EMMA - There's a lot of stigma about showing that you're disabled. I spoke to someone recently who said that they couldn't get help in a work situation unless they registered in work as having a disability. And even though they really needed the help they were really, really struggling to put that out there. And I think having a straw as a medical item, if you were going to have a cup of tea at work - like imagine Esther forgot to bring a straw; Esther is really organised - I would forget to bring a straw every day, I would be left without a way of drinking my tea every day.
DAMON- You wouldn't be able to drink, no.
EMMA - And me without tea you really don't want to be near.
NIAMH - You really don't.
BETH - It turns out that Damon, without knowing that we were going to do this podcast many years later, actually wrote a song about using straws.
NIAMH - That says a lot about you, Damon.
DAMON- I'm just really embarrassed. I said, please let's not even bring this up.
BETH - You were not embarrassed when you rolled into the quiet newsroom this morning and just started singing it with people sat around.
DAMON- It was just a line in a song called, Have You Ever Wondered Why, and it went [sings]: hm, have you ever wondered why kids like to drink through straws so much.
NIAMH - That's diabolical.
DAMON- Is it just novelty - it goes on.
BETH - Go on then.
DAMON- Have you ever wondered by McDonald's don't do a dial-a-burger thing or is it just me. I think I thought I was kind of Brett Anderson from Suede.
EMMA - They do a dial-a-burger now.
DAMON- Yeah, they do, don't they, with delivery and whatever.
EMMA - Yeah. So, actually you are a pioneer.
DAMON- So, it's a song of its age.
EMMA - Yeah.
BETH - It turns out there's loads to say about plastic straws and I'm sure you've got loads of things to tell us as well, or maybe you've come up with the best alternative yet. We would really love to hear from you. We are BBC Ouch on Facebook and Twitter, and we're still on email, it's firstname.lastname@example.org. Also if you want to keep up with Esther and her very funny commentary on the House of Lords, and you don't just need to be British to appreciate these, she is @estwebber on Twitter. And we'll speak to you soon. Bye.
JINGLE - The Ouch podcast.
EMMA - I absolutely loved when Damon said about the tea thing and Esther's like, oh for god's sake.
DAMON- Did she?
EMMA - Just drink it. No, she didn't in that so many words. Just cool it down and drink it slower.
DAMON- I thought I was being…I did think about this. I sucked it up and it went into that soft part of the top of the roof of your mouth, right at the back.
EMMA - Yeah, I can feel it now. I'm just like ugh.
DAMON- It burned for days. It was unpleasant.
EMMA - Well, I have to say that was silly.
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