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Ottawa’s plan to ban single-use plastics by 2021 is generating lots of buzz, but not all of it has been good.
Some, including P.E.I. Council of People with Disabilities executive director Marcia Carroll, are concerned that an outright ban on plastic straws would make it more difficult for people with disabilities to enjoy bars, cafes and restaurants.
“There are many people with disabilities who use straws as a way to eat and drink so that allows them to be more social and more comfortable in settings such as restaurants and cafes,” she said. “With the removal of straws altogether, that becomes a systemic barrier for people living with those types of issues.”
The answer isn’t necessarily single-use plastic straws, Carroll said, but it’s crucial for establishments to provide some sort of accessible alternative. Paper is out, she said as it disintegrates, especially in hot liquid, as are things like reusable metal straws or pasta straws, as they don’t bend enough for people who have limited movement.
Additionally, Carroll said asking people with disabilities to bring their own reusable straws isn’t always practical, as some of the same people who have issues eating and drinking without a straw would likely have trouble cleaning them — especially considering many washrooms are not accessible.
“It creates more barriers,” she said.
“Maybe the option is not a complete ban, and if you need a straw the bartender or the server has them available.”
Carroll said it’s important for governments to include people with disabilities in the conversation about plastic use, and use a disability lens when making these policy decisions that could impact the lives of Canadians living with disabilities.
“For people with disabilities, it’s not that we don’t want to be good stewards of the environment, but are environmental issues really about straws?” Carroll said. “Aren’t there bigger issues that should be dealt with first?”
"maybe that’s not ideal for me, but for the Earth, it is."
- Jen Powley, Atlantic Book Award winner
Jen Powley, an award-winning author and activist based in Nova Scotia, has been living with multiple sclerosis since she was a teenager. The disease now affects her ability to speak, walk, and use her arms and hands.
But speaking via an interpreter, she said our society’s dependence on plastic has to change.
Despite needing to use a straw herself — she carries around her own reusable plastic straw — Powley supports the ban on single-use plastics.
“There’s so much plastic, we need to do something,” she said. “And maybe that’s not ideal for me, but for the Earth, it is. I don’t know what else we can do.”
Though the list of which items would fall under the ban still has to be firmed up, straws and plastic bags have often been the target of single-use plastic bans, including in places like P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador, which both recently announced plans to ban plastic bags.
The European Union also voted this year to ban all single-use plastics, and Canada has said it plans to follow the EU’s model in its own policy.
While not everyone is happy with these steps, environmental groups are celebrating.
'reasons for not doing anything'
“We are happy to see this announcement from the federal government, it’s the direction we should be going in,” said Mark Butler with the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.
Butler also applauded Ottawa’s plans to ensure vendors and manufacturers of plastics are the ones that take responsibility for recycling those products — a principle called extended producer responsibility. He said this would be helpful for the Atlantic region where plastic fishing gear often ends up as marine waste, as it would require companies making fishing gear to ensure recycling facilities are available.
While he acknowledged there could be some growing pains, Butler said he’s confident that a policy can be worked out.
“I think we need to be careful that those aren’t reasons for not doing anything,” he said. “They’re doing this in Europe, they’re doing this in other places and facing the same questions so hopefully we can learn from them.”
Gretchen Fitzgerald, national program director with the Sierra Club of Canada, also commended the move by Ottawa to ban single-use plastics by 2021, but said she has significant concerns that the federal government won’t be able to push concrete legislation across the finish line before the election.
“Canadians across the board have been pushing for action on this for some time ... so they really need to hustle on this,” she said.
Although some have argued that — environmentally — there are bigger fish to fry than plastic bags, Fitzgerald said while banning single-use plastic is good policy from a scientific standpoint, it also represents a larger shift in attitudes.
“There’s a cost to this plastic pollution for the living fabric on the Earth (but it’s) also a flagship issue that even my four-year-old daughter can understand,” Fitzgerald said.
“To me, the plastics issue is a way for folks, in a really concrete way, to understand that treating the planet as disposable at this point in human history is simply untenable for human society.”