The Last Straw

In a last-ditch effort to save the planet, straws have become the hot-ticket no-no item on Santa’s naughty plastics list 

Annalisse Crosswell, Associate News Editor
Jominca Engelbrecht, Illustrator

In the current scramble to save the planet from our neglect, plenty of initiatives have begun with the intent of moving towards a zero-waste future. Straws are the new plastic bags of the  environmentalism conversation, but are these bans really the answer to our plastic woes or are we giving ourselves a preemptive pat on the back? We’ve all seen the video of the tortoise having a straw pulled out of it’s nostril, but straws are not the only waste that poses a threat to our ocean friends. 

America is widely known as one of the most wasteful countries in the world. A 2006 Forbes article said that according to reports from 2005, America, making up only five per cent of the global population, produced a quarter of the waste at more than 236 million tons. A fact that Bob Muckle, an instructor of archaeology at Capilano University, says is still the case today, with the middle class being the worst offenders. There are less studies regarding Canadian waste, but with our cultures being so similar it is thought that Canadians are, by extension, similarly wasteful. 

In an effort to clean up our act, Vancouver voted to ban straws in May of this year, along with foam containers used for takeout. The ban is set to be implemented by June of 2019. Vancouver is just one of many cities globally that has already vouched to abandon the use of plastic straws. According to a Fast Company report, cities and states that have banned plastic straws in America alone include: Malibu, Oakland, Berkeley, Seattle, Edmonds and Miami Beach, along with New York, California and Hawaii who are in the process of doing so.  

The movement has been embraced by developed nations, but there have certainly been concerns raised in the process. Take the ridiculous Starbucks debacle where they replaced plastic straws with paper straws in plastic wrapping. While most of these bans are well meaning, the tendency to jump on the bandwagon without thinking tends to yield a lack of consideration, and silly mistakes.  

Plastic straws may be unnecessary for most, but for people with disabilities like tremors or degenerative muscle diseases which impair their ability to drink from a cup, it’s not always as simple as using a paper or metal straw. When Seattle banned plastic straws in July of 2018 it was certainly an issue that had to be considered. Ellen Pepin-Cato, spokeswoman for the City of Seattle told CNN two weeks later, “The new director’s rule provides a waiver for flexible plastic straws, which can be provided to customers who need such a straw due to medical or physical condition.” According to the CNN article no proof of being disabled would be required, but the onus still falls on individual businesses to choose whether to supply these straws. 

Besides the concern of accessibility, one has to wonder how much we are really doing for our environment. “When I first heard about the ban on straws I was thinking it’s something, but it’s so miniscule, it might do more harm than good,” said Muckle, “It’s like we’re doing our part to save the environment, but really in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty negligible.” 

Instructor of Environmental Biology, Rachel Clearwater, shares this sentiment. Clearwater has worked as an environmental consultant and has a PhD in Conservation Ecology. While waste is difficult to accurately measure, she cites one study based on coastline cleanups by Hardesty & Wilcox that estimates somewhere between 437 million and 8.3 billion plastic straws on coastlines around the world. Though, as she points out, compared to the almost nine million tons of plastic that a Science article estimated in 2015, this number seems insignificant.  

“Even though straws are a small percentage of plastic waste by weight, they are a very visible fraction,” said Clearwater. “Because they are light they float and often end up on shorelines. When people do shoreline counts of individual pieces of plastic trash, straws turn out to be four to seven per cent of overall plastic waste on beaches.” 

Muckle is involved in the waste audit that is led by Cheryl Schreader on campus annually. The audit, aside from providing experiences for students to learn about the reality of what we are throwing away, provides important information about what is and isn’t helping with CapU’s waste habits. According to Muckle the first audit showed that plastic garbage bags were the biggest category of waste in the school. Knowing this led to a change in how many garbage bins there were around campus, with individual bins in offices and classrooms being replaced by more bins in hallways. 

The audit has influenced how many bins there are, as well as signage and location, with new changes made every year. When there are too many options people tend to get overwhelmed, but too few options result in improper recycling as well. Finding a balance is important, and CapU’s audits put it ahead of many other institutions that are only now starting to monitor their waste more closely. In the past the audit has sectioned out particular items to be tracked such as coffee cups, but never straws so there is no way of telling how much of an issue this is specifically for the University. 

Another prominent conversation for environmentalists, is how these individual efforts measure up when compared to the waste that is created by corporations. Muckle is adamant that this comes down to a lack of policy surrounding corporate waste. “What I can tell from reading around the world, is to be truly effective in terms of overall waste, including, but not restricted to plastic, you have to hit the corporations, and the government has to hit the corporations,” said Muckle.  

According to Muckle the countries that are significantly less wasteful than North America put the onus on corporations to use less packaging, with penalties in place for those that do not comply. Without these penalties we cannot expect companies that are striving for financial success to use less packaging when it is the easiest and cheapest solution for them. Muckle said that Japan is an example of this, producing half as much waste despite being a comparable industrial nation. 

Clearwater points to legislation as an important factor in the progress of this type of environmentalism. She thinks overproduction is the key issue, but as individuals, the biggest change we can make is by making sound political decisions, such as voting for politicians who take these issues seriously. Similarly, making more sustainable choices, like being more particular in the products we purchase, is for Clearwater, a step in the right direction. 

Straws may not be the be all end all of waste reduction, but Clearwater thinks it is important for individuals to take a look at what they are using in their daily life and where small changes could be made. “Right now, raising two kids, I am horrified by how many plastic toys exist and end up in our house.  I am working on ways to recycle toys and reduce demand for single use plastic toys…” said Clearwater. “…I don’t want to be the person complaining and lecturing about the evils of loot bags, balloons and floaty toys, so I work on doing this in an inclusive and empowering way.  It’s a challenge but I think I am learning to be more effective.” 

It may not be enough, but cutting down your use of straws still has an impact, even if it’s just to raise the question of whether or not we are doing enough. As Muckle points out, it can be disheartening to make a huge effort as an individual when it seems like others don’t care, but while there are many issues out of our control we can still do our part in ensuring a habitable planet for future generations. We all play a part.

 

Note: This article has been amended to correct the name of the individual in charge of the waste audit. Cheryl Schreader currently leads this program on campus.

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