Why won't McDonald's ban plastic straws in the U.S.?

Last Updated May 24, 2018 4:35 PM EDT

Shareholders at McDonald's annual meeting Thursday rejected a proposal to study a ban on plastic straws at the global fast-food giant's 37,000 outlets serving 68 million customers every day -- a proposal that environmental activists had argued could help save marine life threatened by a worldwide explosion of plastic pollution. 

Viral videos -- including one depicting researchers extracting a plastic straw from a sea turtle's bleeding nostril -- is prompting some companies to find ocean-friendlier alternatives, but McDonald's isn't onboard, at least not in the U.S. 

McDonald's in March said it would phase out plastic straws in the U.K., but on Thursday it stuck to its stance of resisting efforts to do the same in the United States. 

Company shareholders at the annual meeting Thursday followed a recommendation from McDonald's board of directors to soundly defeat a proposal aimed at getting rid of the omnipresent drinking utensil served with soft drinks, coffees and shakes. The board had argued the proposal would force McDonald's to redirect resources from other environmental efforts such as its vow in January to source its packaging from renewable or recycled sources by 2025.

Elaine Leung, a marine biologist, spoke in favor of the defeated proposal, noting that 95 million straws are used by McDonald's each day and citing the non-degradable pollution that has "even remote places covered in plastic garbage."

""Every marine organism, including whales, have been known to eat plastic," leading to an increased count of dead animals washing up on shores around the globe, she said, speaking on behalf of the corporate-activism group SumOfUs, which has collected nearly half a million names on a petition calling on McDonald's to stop using plastic straws.

Alaska Airlines on Monday said travelers on its flights will now be served drinks with compostable versions of stir straws and citrus picks: white birch for coffee and bamboo for citrus sticks. The Seattle-based carrier, which said it handed out 22 million stir straws and citrus picks last year, also said it would have non-plastic, marine-friendly drinking straws for travelers that request them.

And on Wednesday the New York City Council introduced a bill to ban the use of plastic straws in the city, CBS New York reports. Restaurants would be able to instead offer reusable aluminum straws, or straws made of paper, corn or even pasta.

"It's important for New Yorkers to understand that the plastic straw is not a necessity. It's more of a luxury, and our luxury is causing great harm to other environments," Councilman Rafael Espinal, the bill's lead sponsor, said, The New York Times reported

Espinal told CBS New York a lot of restaurants have already signed on and either use only biodegradable straws or a have a straw-on-request-only policy. His proposed ban, which also targets plastic coffee stirrers, would not issue any city fees for violators for the first two years. After that, a first-time violation would mean a $100 fine. 

Plastic straws weren't the only controversial issue surround McDonald's this week. The Chicago-based company is facing sexual harassment claims and protests over worker pay. During a question-and-answer session at Thursday's annual meeting on a variety of issues, CEO Steve Easterbrook politely deflected shareholder concerns about the treatment of its workers, saying the corporation's policies make clear "there is absolutely no place for any harassment or any discrimination of any kind." 

McDonald's is confident, he added, that the independent franchisees that operation 90 percent of its restaurants "are like-minded as well."

Other shareholder proposals rejected at Thursday's meeting included one calling for McDonald's to issue a report on charitable giving. Board-supported proposals involving the election of directors, executive pay and selecting the company auditor were accepted.