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The last straw? Vancouver targets ancient device as cities move to reduce plastic waste

What was once framed as an issue of animal protection is now framed as a large-scale environmental disaster threatening humanity as well
April 4, 2018
By Jospeh Brean

Never mind the last straw, the figurative tiny burden that finally breaks the overloaded camel's back.

That is old news. In British Columbia these days, for example, it is the go-to wisecrack in municipal governance circles, as Vancouver proposes to ban plastic straws, just as Victoria will do in the summer.

What really illustrates the culinary stakes in these legislative gambits is the first straw, or the first known straw - a flashy gold device encrusted with lapis lazuli discovered in the royal Sumerian tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur in modern day Iraq, dated to 3000 BC, at the end of the Stone Age. More than a metre in length, and with a silver mouthpiece, it was unearthed with a seal showing early straws in action, as two men drank beer from a jar.

Only that image of the ancient straw as part of our shared human heritage - older even than the fork - adequately illustrates just how far we have come, millennia later, to the point where entire cities are not only banning straws to drink, but swizzle sticks to stir and plastic bags to carry.

The stakes are high and rising as governments around the world move to reduce the plastic they create, the plastic they waste and the costs of recycling it. What was once framed as an issue of animal protection - as in the fears about birds getting stuck in the plastic rings that hold six-packs together - is now framed as a large-scale environmental disaster threatening humanity as well. Exhibit A is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of ocean inundated with plastic detritus, held in place by circling currents.

Some estimates suggest it is only a couple of decades before there is more plastic in the world's oceans than fish. Much of this is plastic shopping bags and bottles. But a lot of it is straws.

A new plastic reduction strategy report from the City of Vancouver says straws and stir sticks make up three per cent of shoreline litter, and that it costs millions to clean up. Assuming Canadians behave roughly as Americans do in regard to their drinking straws, the report also suggests that, across Canada, more plastic straws are thrown out in a single day than there are Canadians. Proposals include a ban on disposable cups, containers and utensils in addition to straws and bags.

"A lot of people are telling us they can do without that straw, thank you very much," Warren Erhart, president of White Spot and Triple O's restaurants, told the Vancouver Sun. He claims to have already removed between three and four million straws from a system in which he has been using about 13 million a year.

Vancouver is not alone. Victoria is already set to ban straws and plastic bags this summer. Toronto, which uses 215 million plastic bags a year, tried to pass a ban a few years ago, and there was a brief period where there was a mandated charge for them at store checkouts, but both plans ultimately failed. There has lately been talk at city council of bringing it back.

The entire province of Nova Scotia is mulling a similar plan, now that Halifax no longer sells its plastic recycling to China. California issued a state-wide ban in 2016, unifying a pre-existing patchwork of bans. Morocco has banned plastic bags completely, in favour of ones made from recycled paper fibres.

This past New Year's, Montreal's ban on plastic bags came into effect, making it the first Canadian city to do so. A grace period expires in June, when the city will start issuing fines of up to $1,000 for a first violation, and $2,000 for a second.

It applies to lightweight bags less than 0.05 mm thick, the sort that Quebecers use two billion of each year, and recycle less than 15 per cent. The ban excludes the even thinner bags used exclusively to protect food or carry it to the cash.

"In addition to being a visual nuisance, lost or abandoned plastic bags have a significant impact on terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Their decomposition in landfill sites may take several hundred years," Montreal says on its civil website.

Straws are an unusual addition to the ban for Vancouver. There are some things for which they are a necessary tool, like milkshakes and juiceboxes. As the city's own report notes, they are not easily recycled because they fall through the screens used to sort recyclable material, and they can contaminate compost if they are disposed of with food waste. They are also an important accessibility tool for some people, for which paper straws are not an adequate replacement.

As a sort of compromise to encourage reduction, Vancouver's proposal is to require food vendors to ask customers if they would like a straw, rather than just give them one.

"This requirement recognizes the challenges with accessibility if straws are fully restricted," the report says.