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Plastic pollution is the new front in the culture war

Last week, Lianne Rood decided to take a stand.

Appearing in a video recorded outside a Tim Hortons restaurant in downtown Ottawa, the duly elected Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex announced that she would not be partaking of the iconic chain’s coffee unless it discontinued its use of paper lids.

“I’m done with Tim Hortons until they stop trying to push these woke paper lids that dissolve in your mouth,” she wrote in a social media post.

The non-plastic lids were part of a product test by the company in Ottawa and Prince Edward Island.

Rood’s use of “woke” is further evidence that the word (whatever its original meaning) has been reduced to a catch-all term for things Conservatives don’t like. But it also speaks to her party’s apparent desire to turn the issue of plastic pollution into a culture war battle.

A woman in a blue dress motions with her hands as she speaks in the House of Commons.
Conservative member of Parliament Lianne Rood rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 23, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

“This is not about science,” Conservative MP Corey Tochor told the House of Commons last month. “It is about government controlling our lives.”

Tochor was speaking about Bill C-380, his own initiative to reverse the Liberal government’s move to list manufactured plastic items as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

That listing was part of a broader effort by the federal government to ban a number of single-use plastics, actions taken in response to growing concern about global plastic pollution. The listing was challenged by major plastics producers and a Federal Court judge ruled last fall that it was overly broad. The federal government is appealing that decision.

Torchor’s primary concern is the paper straw, which he described as “soggy, limp, wet and utterly useless.”

Five days after Tochor’s bill was debated in the House, Conservative MP Branden Leslie posted an eight-minute video that promoted Tochor’s bill. Leslie’s complaints extend to reusable bags — which he says he’s always forgetting to take with him when he goes shopping — and non-plastic cutlery.

“Turns out those crappy paper straws they literally jammed down your throat are linked to cancer and a bunch of other diseases,” Leslie wrote (it should be noted that the government is not “literally” doing that).

“Liberal virtue signaling is literally making people sick.”

In pointing to health concerns, the Conservatives are seizing on a study released last fall that found the presence of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances — otherwise known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — in paper straws. Researchers also found PFAS in some of the plastic straws they tested.

But the Conservatives are not merely raising questions about existing alternatives to plastic straws.

“Let us get back to the plastic straw. It is functional. It works. It is better for the environment,” Tochor told the House. 

He is promoting a petition to “save” the plastic straw.

The hard math of plastic waste

The recent wave of public concern about plastic pollution was driven, in part, by concern about the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans — and a widely publicized image of a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose.

Tochor and Leslie acknowledge that concern for the world’s oceans but argue that Canada is just a small part of the problem. Leslie also points to a federal scientific assessment, published in 2020, that says one per cent of plastic waste in Canada — seemingly a small amount — found its way into the environment.

But one per cent of Canada’s plastic waste amounted to 29,000 tonnes of plastic pollution in 2016, the report notes. According to Statistics Canada, the total was 43,140 tonnes in 2019.

“Since plastic degrades very slowly and is persistent in the environment, the amount of plastic pollution is anticipated to continue to increase over time,” the 2020 federal assessment states. “There are growing concerns that plastic pollution may adversely impact the health of the environment and humans.”

A man walks on a railway track littered with plastic and other waste materials on Earth Day in Mumbai, India on April 22, 2024.
A man walks on a railway track littered with plastic and other waste materials on Earth Day in Mumbai, India on April 22, 2024. (Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press)

The report says that “the most common litter items collected on Canadian shorelines include cigarette butts, bottle caps, plastic bags, plastic bottles and straws” and that “a greater abundance of plastic pollution has been found in areas with high human and industrial activity, notably in the Great Lakes.”

Speaking to his bill last month, Tochor pointed to recycling as a solution. But the 2020 federal assessment reported that just nine per cent of plastic waste in Canada is recycled annually.

“We do need to improve recycling, but it’s not the solution. It’s not the one solution. We also need to turn off the tap of production,” said Tony Walker, a professor in the school for resource and environmental studies at Dalhousie University.

The hotly contested plastic straw, Walker said, is both “low hanging fruit” (an easy object to focus on) and the “tip of the iceberg” (a small part of a much bigger problem).

The politics of the paper straw

“The issue is that we’ve so overproduced plastics that ultimately turn into microplastics and nanoplastics. And they pollute the environment and they pollute humans,” said Miriam Diamond, a professor in the department of earth sciences at the University of Toronto.

Diamond — who is a member of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty and vice-chair of the International Panel on Chemical Pollution — said she worries that a focus on plastic straws risks trivializing the larger issue.

With the exception of those with physical limitations, most people don’t actually need to drink through a straw (or a coffee lid). People still managed to consume liquids before plastic straws came into widespread use in the latter half of the 20th century. But in the rush to find non-plastic alternatives, governments do have to be mindful of unforeseen consequences and there’s a valid debate to be had about the best and smartest way to reduce plastic waste. 

At the same time, Justin Trudeau’s government is hardly alone in targeting single-use plastics.

Plastic waste covers a beach.
A 2020 federal assessment said that just nine per cent of plastic waste in Canada is recycled annually. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The Conservative government in the United Kingdom — a government that likely would resent being called “woke” — has implemented its own bans and restrictions on a number of items, including straws. In 2015, shortly before it lost power, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government began the process that ultimately led to a ban on microbeads

If there were any Conservatives worried at the time about the freedom of Canadians to exfoliate, they stifled their objections. But the current enthusiasm for plastic straws recalls Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant’s lonely fight against the Harper government’s move to phase out incandescent light bulbs

Paper straws have already been a culture war flashpoint in the United States. In 2019, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign sold Trump-branded plastic straws as an alternative to “liberal” paper straws (and reportedly raised half a million dollars for Trump’s re-election effort in the process).

In 2007, when the Harper government first announced its intention to regulate the use of more efficient light bulbs, one cabinet minister remarked that “this is more than just about light bulbs. The light bulb is only the gateway to broad public engagement on energy efficiency and action on climate change.”

The same could be said of plastic straws (or bags or lids) and plastic pollution. But if plastic pollution is a problem worth worrying about, it will become much harder to confront if one’s choice of straw becomes a symbol of political or cultural identity.

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