Banning single use plastics: a half-measure in the final hour

Photo Credit: Eating Well

Photo Credit: Eating Well

It’s become increasingly popular for fast food and other food service companies to stop using plastic straws. The trend is said to have started after a popular video circulated of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, which prompted public outcry. As a result, this caused several companies to start offering more environmentally friendly paper straws, or to simply stop offering straws for their customers altogether. This has also motivated governments at all levels to introduce single use plastics bans. This includes the government of Canada with an announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau just this past summer committing to a federal ban if the Liberals are re-elected in 2021.

It’s clear that the sentiment behind this movement is good, as I’m sure nobody with half a heart can sit through that turtle video without feeling at least a little bit uncomfortable — or guilty. It’s also clear that protecting our environment and fighting the climate crisis are international imperatives given that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we have just over a decade to limit the effects of global catastrophe at the hands of climate change. However, while this whole topic of single use plastics is popular to talk about and support, I think that the whole idea may be a bit half baked. This initiative isn’t focused in terms of scope or the root issue. If we want to adequately combat and confront environmental degradation and the climate crisis, this isn’t necessarily the way.

This swift change in the private sector to stop offering straws to customers has posed a major issue for differently-abled and neurodiverse individuals that rely on them to drink in these types of establishments. Many of these individuals have been left without options at various restaurants, coffee shops, fast food joints and so on, and they have been forced to accommodate their own needs. Popular alternatives like paper or metal straws are not always feasible for these individuals.

While only one example, it shows you just how haphazard this private sector straw ban has been. Some places still carry straws but require you ask for them if you want to use one. Others simply replaced the plastic straws with far less effective and often non-recyclable paper straws, while some have stopped providing them altogether. Only one thing has been consistent throughout this whole process: there is no consistency. That fact has only served to frustrate, confuse and in the case of those who are differently abled, exclude huge swaths of people.

I personally have to question the intention of the businesses, many of which are international corporations, that adopted this ban on straws and other single use plastics so eagerly in the first place even without government coercion to force their hand. While perhaps some small, local businesses have made the decision to ban plastic straws because they think it is the right thing to do, I question the intent of multinational corporations that have hopped on the bandwagon.

At the end of the day, publicly traded companies have only one legal commitment, to maximize profits for their shareholders. Beyond that, as long as they are operating within the laws of the country that they are doing business in, they do not have to worry about anything else because they aren’t living things like you and me. They don’t have feelings or a moral conscience; they are legal entities that are designed to make money. What I mean by this is that, while they might advertise that they want to help the environment, or that their product or decision to stop using single use plastics does in fact help the environment, that really is only a happy accident for them, because their sole focus is on making more and more money.

Think about it for a second: when the government of Ontario wanted to raise the minimum wage to a living wage two years ago, businesses were talking in the news and advertising all over the place about how this would destroy the economy and how they couldn’t afford this major wage increase. It wasn’t until the government raised the minimum wage and forced these companies to act that we got a raise in Ontario. Since then, unemployment has gone down by over one per cent and there have been over 300,000 jobs created in Ontario. If these companies had a moral conscience, wouldn’t they have wanted to raise the minimum wage to a living wage on their own? The answer is no, because in terms of their individual profit margins, raising the minimum wage hurt them, even though it was the right thing to do from both an economic and moral perspective. This inconsistency of behaviour between the moral act of raising the minimum wage and that of reducing plastic waste makes me suspicious. What’s different?

They have made the calculation that by making these minor changes to their operations they will be able to present themselves as being environmentally friendly, which will drum up business, whether or not what they have done is actually all that environmentally friendly or not. This is known as greenwashing and it has been a common marketing practice for a long time, but it is as alive as ever.

While companies are legally free to greenwash their marketing all they want, I want everyone to know that the decision made by private companies to stop using single use plastics or plastic straws is only a cheap marketing tactic for them and nothing more. When we look at the facts regarding the climate crisis and environmental degradation, plastic use has a very limited impact.

As noted in an article posted by the Guardian in 2017, only 100 fossil fuel companies and investors are responsible for 71 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions on earth. Just think about that for a second — these corporations hold the key to tackling the greatest threat to our planet and so few people are talking about it. Sadly, because of the way that things are right now, they have no obligation to do anything about the climate crisis and only the government has the power to make them act at all, but they seem to just be sitting on their hands.

That is the main reason why I am concerned with how people are channeling their passion to fight the climate crisis and to protect and rebuild our environment. Banning single use plastics shouldn’t be the end goal, because it really is only the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg. I hope that people will focus their attention and energy into changing our institutions, like government, from the inside, because at the end of the day all public institutions, including government, are people-powered. So I do hope that anyone who really is passionate about the climate crisis and the environment will consider taking action. Make an informed vote in this upcoming election, run for office in the future, get in the streets to protest and keep the powerful on their toes by holding them accountable, in order to make sure that we actually tackle this issue in a substantial and transformative way by actually holding the biggest polluters to account.

Let me make this clear, I have nothing against those trying to lead more sustainable lives. I just want to make sure that we all realize that we can’t just be the change that we want to see in the world, but we have to fight for it too — even when that means doing more than banning straws.

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