She Speaks: Plastic straws and other distractions

Originally published by Huntsville Doppler.

When I started to make my homemade smoothies (affectionately, or sceptically, known as ‘sludgies’ in my house) I decided to invest in a set of metal straws. I scoured Amazon for the perfect ones. Wide enough to handle my concoctions, made of a natural material, and easy to clean. Two weeks later, my mom decided to buy her own set of plastic reusable straws because she didn’t like the bend in mine.

My sister returned from of her travels and gave me a bamboo straw as a gift. Then a bunch of friends got in on a Kickstarter for a reusable, collapsible travel straw. A month after that, I got a lovely copper coloured metal straw kit complete with cleaning brush in a free swag bag from a conference.

Before I knew it, my desire to stay away from single-use disposable plastic had turned into a collection of acquired straws much larger than any one person could possibly use.

I remember the same thing happening with water bottles. It was probably around my first year of university that I noticed the women in my classes switching, one by one as if some memo had been sent out, from plastic disposable water bottles to reusable ones (I mention that it was the women doing this because I never really saw male students with water, and it was a bit of a campus joke that only women drank water).

I, too, got myself a reusable water bottle. The lid was leaky, so I asked for a new one for my birthday. That one got lost after a time, and I got another. Then I needed a plastic one for backpacking, and one with a wider neck to put ice in, and one with a straw… Suddenly, I had a cupboard full of water bottles.

This happened with travel mugs, too.

In my desperation to not contribute to the ongoing inundation of single-use disposable plastic in landfills or the garbage islands in the oceans, I had become a consummate consumer of only slightly less disposable items.

One of the most enlightening comments I have heard about selling bottled water is that it is not the water that’s being sold – it’s the plastic container. And despite our shift toward more sustainable habits as individuals, the bottle business is booming.

For example, the Six Nations of Grand River, only an hour and half from Toronto, is one of 50 indigenous communities that live under boil-water advisories – that’s 63,000 people in Canada without clean water to drink. Meanwhile, in what can only be described as environmental racism, Nestle extracts 3.6 million litres of water every single day from Six Nations treaty land, land that is closer than the distance Indigenous people have to travel to buy bottled water to drink at an exorbitant markup.

Water was declared a human right by the United Nations on July 28 2010. According to the CDC, 11 per cent of the global population, or 780 million people, do not have access to clean drinking water. Water should not be something that megacorporations can extract for pennies while the first people of this nation are suffering from hepatitis A, gastroenteritis, giardia lamblia, scabies, ringworm and impetigo. Water should only be sold for profit when everyone in our country has appropriate access to the supply, as is their human right. In fact, your favourite socialist columnist would argue that nothing considered a human right should ever be hoarded or sold for a profit, but why not start with waiting until people aren’t dying from thirst?

Muskoka is home to the largest collection of freshwater lakes on the planet. This is awe-inducing, this is privilege, and this is important – and even we have to deal with toxic algae, acidic lakes, and infrastructure encroaching on public springs. Yet, while we are all arguing over stickers on gas stations and how much it costs to drive to the cottage or get our kids to school, big oil is being propped up by dinosaurs not unlike its very origin.  As dire as this has been made to sound, the next war we may see in Muskoka won’t be over gas prices but over water. Call me Cassandra on this one, but if I weren’t such an anti-capitalist, I’d put money on it.

I think it’s a great step that restaurants are taking heed of shifts in consumer wants and veering away from plastic straws. Sea turtles with straws jammed up their nostrils make quite an impression. However, if you’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry (or retail, or factory, or cleaning, etc) you know that straws are the tip of the melting-faster-than-expected iceberg. Single-use disposable plastic is a disgusting affront to the creativity and innate goodness of our species, and its phase-out is both inevitable and far too late in coming. We can do better – in fact, Canada could become a follower (not a leader, by far) in the initiative to ban single-use plastic by as early as 2021.

It is not individual action that will change the world. Of course it’s important that we all do what we can in order to lessen our devastating impact on the planet we hope to inhabit for the foreseeable future. We need to adapt and get used to a new way of moving through the world – in harmony with nature and not treating it like an endless conveyor belt of goodies. I think the hyper-focus on things like straws and water bottles distract us from the bigger picture.

It is neither you nor I extracting 3.6 million litres of water to sell back to the people who live on the land it came from. I’d venture to say no one reading this is one of the eight men whose collective net worth is more than half that of the population of planet Earth. This is a violent injustice and it won’t resolve itself. I applaud individual action because I believe it highlights a self-awareness that our choices matter and we vote with our purchases. But I would rather see 20 people drinking from plastic water bottles working as a collective to protest against corporate oligarchy than people giving up the straw and feeling like their activism ends there.

To put it another way, the fervour around individual use of plastic straws makes it seem like we are the problem. But we are the solution. And guilt is a terrible motivator.

So to you I raise my bamboo travel mug with locally and sustainably sourced chaga tea which I sip through a very fashionable anodized metal straw and toast to revolution.


One comment

  1. You have a very profound awareness of the role that individual action plays in the lives of radical thinkers. As you noted, it is not the solution to social problems, but it is still important because it highlights self-awareness. I also like to think of the cumulative impact that my individual actions will have when I interact in the world generally and activist groups specifically. Finally, I have noted that even saying something as simple as “I’m vegan” (which was an individual action I took in response to growing consciousness) in normative groups can dramatically shift the conversation and prompt a wide range of interesting and awkward conversations.


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