As I was getting set up for last week's council meeting, the Deputy Mayor approached the media table and handed me a small container displaying the municipal logo. Inside the container was a red silicone reusable straw. The Deputy Mayor explained that as part of Waste Reduction Week the municipality was giving away the straws at municipal locations like the library.
My initial reaction was extremely positive – in my household we have used stainless steel straws for the past decade, and my kids used them regularly. In fact my 16 year-old still pulls one out of the cupboard for his water mug whenever he's in town for a visit, so eco-friendly straws are no stranger in my household. The red silicone straw in the container appealed to me because it made reusable straws portable. Unlike silicone, my stainless steel straws don't fold very well, and they are difficult to clean making them a less than desirable candidate for carting around in a backpack.
To boot, I'm never one to scoff at a pocket-sized container of any sort; those things always come in handy. So I was pretty pleased as I tucked the container-shielded silicone straw into my backpack for future use.
Then, a few days later I started seeing comments on social media about the straws with some calling out the municipality for their use of plastic containers with these eco-friendly straws. Some suggested that, given the plastic containers, these straws aren't environmentally friendly at all, and this is a debate we will hear in many forms in the years to come as we grapple with our addiction to plastic and how to wean ourselves off the stuff.
Those who called out this irony aren't entirely wrong – it's a shame that the container to hold the straws are made of plastic. Certainly it would be better if the container had been made of silicone like the straw, or some other material, but then the cost would be significantly more. Some wondered why a container is needed at all, and those comments clearly come from folks who have never used reusable straws, because if they had they would know that the last thing you want to do is to plunk an unprotected straw into a backpack or purse if you want to keep them clean, so a container of some sort is needed.
The argument of course is that the silicone straw is intended to replace single-use plastic straws that we have all used and have all tossed into the trash bin, while the container isn't intended to be single-use at all. The very design of the container lets you know that it is intended to be used over and over.
So, as we grapple with our use of plastics in the years to come we will hear many arguments about what exactly defines single-use. I don't think there are many that would disagree that we humans have come to realize a little too late that this wondrous material we call plastic isn't exactly our best friend. True it is durable (too durable in fact), and it can be used in a wide range of applications, but as we have found, plastic is polluting our waters and the life within them, so we need to drastically reduce what we use. Most governments, including Canada, are starting with proposed bans on single-use plastics, with straws having become the poster boy for the movement.
But what exactly is single-use plastic? Many suggest that plastic shopping bags, commonly used by retail outlets for decades, run a close second to the evil plastic straw, and as a result there has been a movement for many years to use reusable cloth bags. But are plastic bags truly single use? Throughout my lifetime, plastic bags from retail outlets have been used for a wide range of purposes, not the least of which is to plunk them into household trash containers to use as trash bags. At times I have used plastic bags more than once or twice, but most often I save them and use them for trash – so are they truly single use?
For that matter, are the plastic tab enclosures on loaves of bread single use? I think most would say they are, but I have seen people use them for other purposes, and if they are to be banned with other single-use plastics, then we will need some other way to seal our bread – but then the bags themselves would be single-use wouldn't they? So we will need a different method of packaging our bread.
Again, these are the debates we will have in the years to come as we gradually drop plastic from a range of current uses, and these debates will be crucial to our understanding of what constitutes a good and proper use of plastic and what doesn't. Either way, the elimination of single-use plastics is coming our way, and though it will no doubt be frustrating at times, it will be for the best.