How many plastic straws do we use?

Published: 29th May 2019

In brief

Claim

In England we use an estimated 8.5 billion plastic straws each year, according to government figures.

Conclusion

This is based on an old estimate from an environmental consultancy of how many straws the fast food industry in the whole of the UK uses each year. The government has since said it thinks this figure is wrong.

 

Nearly 5 billion plastic straws are currently used in the UK each year.

 

The latest government estimate for the number used in England alone is around 4.7 billion. The estimate itself is very uncertain.

Claim 1 of 2

“In England, it is estimated we use 8.5 billion plastic straws… a year, according to government figures.”

Independent, 22 May 2019

“… nearly 5bn plastic straws [are] currently used each year in the UK…”

The Guardian, 22 May 2019

“Defra said that 4.7 billion plastic straws… were used each year in England.”

The Times, 22 May 2019

Last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced an almost total ban on the supply of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds will come into force next year. Following this a number of news outlets reported figures on how many of these items we use in the UK each year.

But there were differences in the way some outlets reported the number of plastic straws we use each year. The Independent provided different numbers to many of the other news outlets and the Guardian incorrectly reported that the figures were for the whole of the UK rather than England.

(Since we originally published this article, both the Guardian and the Independent have corrected their figures).

A poll published on Twitter by the Prime Minister’s office also incorrectly attributed the 4.7 billion figure to the whole of the UK.

This 4.7 billion figure, which was quoted by most media outlets, seems to originate from the original Defra press release announcing the ban, and appears to be based on the findings of a report prepared for Defra last year.

Any figures on the number of straws used each year across the UK or England are based on estimates and carry a high degree of uncertainty.

The 8.5 billion has been factchecked before and only applies to the fast food industry

The figure of 8.5 billion straws used each year is an estimate for the UK and only covers the number of straws used within the fast food industry. BBC Reality Check factchecked the claim last year, and it has in the past been used by the government as the number of plastic straws thrown away each year.

The figure comes from a 2017 report by the environmental consultancy Eunomia. It’s based on a figure from the campaign group Straw Wars which found McDonald’s used 3.5 million straws a day in the UK (roughly 1.3 billion per year). Eunomia then scaled this figure up by using data on McDonald’s market share to work out how many plastic straws the entire fast food industry would use in a year in the UK.

But last year McDonald’s told BBC Reality Check that it actually uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK (or about 657 million per year). We don’t know where the 3.5 million estimate originally came from and are trying to contact Straw Wars.

Based on McDonald’s figure of 1.8 million straws a day, BBC Reality Check made the same calculation Eunomia did, and estimated that around 4.4 billion straws would be used by the fast food industry in the UK each year.

Either way, this figure doesn’t represent the total number of straws used across the UK in a year.

Last year the UK Statistics Authority was asked to comment on the government’s use of the 8.5 billion figure. It praised Defra for the process it used to check Eunomia’s figures before publishing them, but also said it should have made clear the figure was an estimate and provided the source.

In 2018 Eunomia produced another report, which stated that the UK used 42 billion plastic straws per year, almost five times more than their earlier figure for the fast food industry.

Eunomia told us the 42 billion figure was arrived at using an alternative, ‘top down’, approach looking at all straws, rather than just the fast food sector. It was based on EU-level market data available at the time which, in the absence of country-specific consumption data, was then split out across each member state based on relative GDP.

Eunomia also told us that “due to the limitations in the data currently available on the number of plastic straws the exact number used in the UK in a year is uncertain, but likely to lie within the range of figures presented. Furthermore, with many businesses and individuals already making the switch away from single use plastic straws, consumption is likely to have declined in the past year or so."

The 4.7 billion figure comes from newer analysis done for Defra, but it’s also uncertain

A newer report prepared for Defra by the waste and resource management consultancy Resource Futures says that the 8.5 billion figure is “now believed to be erroneous” and that the 42 billion figure “intuitively feels high”.

The 4.7 billion figure the report produces is based partly on numbers from the BBC Reality Check article—the 1.8 million straws a day from McDonald’s scaled up for the whole of the fast food industry in the UK—before adjusting them for England alone. This produces a figure of 3.5 billion straws in the “large drinking straws market in England” that “most likely represents the majority of drinking straws consumed in the hospitality sector”, though Resource Futures also added it was a conservative figure and could potentially be as high as seven billion.

To this figure it added around one billion “beverage carton straws”, the kind you get on juice boxes for example. This was based on an estimate provided by a “large carton producer interviewed in the research”. The expert told Resource Futures that between one and 1.5 billion of these smaller straws were used across the UK in a year, and it then scaled this figure down to apply to England only.

Finally, Resource Futures added a figure of around 44 million “medical-enabling straws” per year. This was based on the assumption that 1% of all those with manual dexterity disabilities, those over the age of 65 and those with severe dexterity difficulties (for example people with Parkinson’s Disease) used one straw every day.

Update 6 June 2019

We updated this piece to note that the Guardian and Independent have both corrected their figures.

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