McDonald’s shareholders will vote today on whether to ban plastic straws

This is a McDonalds on the Northside of Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
This is a McDonalds on the Northside of Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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McDonald’s shareholders are casting ballots today on a small change that could have big implications for the environment and investor activism: Whether to ban plastic straws at its restaurants.

Specifically, the proposal, introduced by shareholder Keith Schnip, calls on the company to prepare a report examining the business risks of giving away disposable plastic straws. The proposal argues that consumers are increasingly attuned to the environmental costs of straws, noting that almost 16 million people have watched a YouTube video of a straw being removed from the nostril of a sea turtle (that number is now up to 28 million). “We believe our company has an opportunity to improve its brand by demonstrating leadership in the elimination of plastic straws.”

Straws, while a minor contributor to the 8 million tons of plastic garbage floating in the earth’s oceans, have become a symbol of a small, yet easily achievable, reduction in waste. Americans use 500 million straws a day. Almost none are recycled or reused.

McDonald’s asked its shareholders to reject the proposal, saying it’s already looking into alternatives to plastic straws, and drafting a report would a “diversion of resources.”

Shareholder activists have notched some notable wins with ballot proposals in recent years, such as rebuking the CEO of BP over his $19.6 million pay package, or requiring a gun maker to report on how its weapons are used. Investors also used the threat of a shareholder ballot to successfully pressure Starbucks into expanding its family-leave policies.

While issue advocacy has traditionally been the province of small, progressively minded investors, their efforts have been bolstered by some of the world’s largest investing firms like BlackRock, where CEO Larry Fink said the company will use the voting power of the $6.3 trillion in holdings its oversees to push for social change.

Shareholder proposals  concerned with the environment have traditionally focus on oil and gas companies, with mixed success, but last year advocacy group As You Sow took aim at McDonald’s use of polysytrene packaging, asking the hamburger chain to phase out its use by the end of this year. The proposal won the support of just 32% of shareholders, but the company got the message: In January, it announced a new goal of making all packaging environmentally sustainable by 2025.

Update: The shareholder proposal was voted down, receiving less than 8% of the votes tallied at the May 24 meeting, according to the BBC.