The drink­ing straw ban is only the first step

Gov­ern­ments should be set­ting the tone for change, not just com­pa­nies

Windsor Star - - OPINION - AL­LI­SON HANES Al­li­son Hanes is a colum­nist with the Mon­treal Gazette.

With cities around the world tak­ing aim at drink­ing straws in a bid to re­duce sin­gle-use plas­tics pol­lut­ing our planet, food es­tab­lish­ments big and small are also step­ping up to take pre-emp­tive ac­tion. Cof­fee con­glom­er­ate Star­bucks an­nounced this week it will phase out plas­tic straws by 2020, re­plac­ing them with a moulded lid. Burger chain A&W an­nounced last month it will re­place plas­tic straws in all its restau­rants with biodegrad­able pa­per ones within the coming months. These in­dus­try ini­tia­tives come as gov­ern­ments im­pose re­stric­tions on ubiq­ui­tous dis­pos­able plas­tics — like the bans on straws in Van­cou­ver or Mon­treal’s pro­hi­bi­tion on sin­gle-use plas­tic bags. There is a great ur­gency to act with sci­en­tists and conservationists sound­ing the alarm about the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble amount of plas­tic garbage gy­rat­ing in the world’s oceans. Cyn­ics might see these moves as good PR for com­pa­nies whose pack­ag­ing, from cups to lids to con­tain­ers, are a con­tribut­ing fac­tor to this grave global epi­demic. But it is nev­er­the­less re­fresh­ing to see busi­ness tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for seek­ing so­lu­tions rather than fight­ing reg­u­la­tions or be­ing leg­is­lated into clean­ing up their act. Skep­tics might also ques­tion how much of a dif­fer­ence elim­i­nat­ing plas­tic straws will make, given the amount of trash that fast-food pack­ag­ing cre­ates and the sheer vol­ume of plas­tic de­bris churn­ing in our oceans. In­deed, dis­pos­able straws may be a just drop in the bucket. An es­ti­mated 5.3 mil­lion to 14 mil­lion tons a year of plas­tic trash end up in our wa­ter­ways world­wide. But the im­pact of the straw is not neg­li­gi­ble. When the City of Van­cou­ver an­nounced its plans, it noted that 57 mil­lion straws are used and dis­carded each week in Canada alone. But ban­ish­ing straws must not be the only mea­sure un­der­taken. Rather, it should be a first step to­ward rethinking our en­vi­ron­men­tally harm­ful habits that are catch­ing up to us, from our reliance on fos­sil fu­els that are driv­ing cli­mate change to our overde­pen­dence on plas­tics that are killing aquatic life and chok­ing our oceans. Change needs to oc­cur on a mas­sive scale. But we have to start some­where. Gov­ern­ments — both na­tional and mu­nic­i­pal — must set stan­dards and set the tone for change, whether it’s the United King­dom out­law­ing not just straws, but plas­tic stir sticks and cot­ton swabs, or Mon­treal mulling new lim­i­ta­tions on plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles in mu­nic­i­pal fa­cil­i­ties. A mo­tion on re­duc­ing plas­tics in the ocean sur­faced at the tu­mul­tuous G7 Sum­mit held in the Charlevoix re­gion of Que­bec in June. Again, a start. In­dus­try has an im­por­tant part to play in this, start­ing with giv­ing eco-con­scious cus­tomers bet­ter choices. On­line take­out ser­vice Foodora — which al­ready de­liv­ers via bi­cy­cle in Mon­treal — re­cently an­nounced cus­tomers can opt out of re­ceiv­ing dis­pos­able cut­lery with their or­der in hopes of re­duc­ing plas­tic use by 30 per cent in 2018. It’s one ges­ture by one com­pany, but again every bit makes a dif­fer­ence when it comes to turn­ing the tide. And once one cor­po­ra­tion launches a ma­jor ini­tia­tive, their com­peti­tors of­ten fol­low suit.

These busi­ness-led ac­tions could also force some cus­tomers to re­con­sider their mind­less con­sump­tion of plas­tics. Once peo­ple re­al­ize they don’t ac­tu­ally need a straw at Star­bucks or A&W, maybe they’ll re­al­ize they don’t need one at other out­lets, like McDon­ald’s. Or maybe they’ll re­think tak­ing a dis­pos­able cup at all when they could carry a travel mug — and get a dis­count on their cof­fee.

The real power in this lies with con­sumers. The pub­lic must ex­pect the restau­rants, cafés and other en­ter­prises they pa­tron­ize to lessen their im­pact on the planet. Be­cause busi­ness as usual is sim­ply not sus­tain­able. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Na­tional Ge­o­graphic ex­posé: Of the 9.2 bil­lion tons of plas­tics man­u­fac­tured since the 1950s, 6.9 bil­lion tons be­came waste and 6.3 bil­lion tons was never re­cy­cled. Let the mag­ni­tude of that predica­ment sink in for a mo­ment.

Then the next time you eat out, think twice about whether you re­ally need that plas­tic straw, fork or cup.

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