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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Grasping at Straws

This is not the end of the world

Kyle Wyatt

Six years had passed since my last visit to Albion, the small town in northeast Nebraska where I grew up. My family no longer lives there, and the pandemic disrupted an annual canoe trip that had previously taken me back with some regularity. I realized that I was feeling a little homesick, especially for the kind of big, expansive skies and sweeping vistas that simply do not exist in Toronto. I decided to head down for a few days.

Ahead of my trip, I wondered and worried about what I might encounter after such a long absence. This being an election year in the United States, there would surely be candidate yard signs aplenty and numerous billboards supporting this ballot initiative or that. I knew I would see evidence of the culture wars playing out in flags and bumper stickers. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be surrounded by law-abiding Cornhuskers carrying concealed weapons. I was prepared to be shocked by the land of my youth, but I had no idea what would ultimately shock me the most: plastic straws.

We’ve been using straws of one kind or another for a very long time. Thousands of years ago, Sumerians of means enjoyed their beer with hollow sticks and tubes made of precious metals and stones. During the Northern Wei Dynasty, people in ancient China drank wine through plant stalks. In South America, the endlessly reusable silver bombilla — or “little pump”— was developed in the seventeenth century, complete with a built‑in filter to keep herbal maté debris in the calabash gourd and not in the mouth. In 1888, a man named Marvin Stone filed a patent for his paper straw, supposedly inspired by a mint julep he drank through a piece of ryegrass. Four decades later, Joseph Friedman invented the bendable version, which hospitals found particularly suited for patients lying in bed. Only in the 1960s did mass-produced plastic straws emerge, quickly becoming so ubiquitous that Americans alone go through half a billion per day.

Not long ago, Canadians were tossing over 11,000 of them every minute. But even before the government banned single-use plastics — a ban since ruled unconstitutional, though it remains in effect pending appeal — the numbers were falling, to the point that I began to forget plastic straws even existed. Not so back in Lincoln and Omaha and points beyond, where they continue to outnumber trees a million to one.

While they may be diminutive in stature, the cumulative mass and impact of those straws I observed in Nebraska and of those elsewhere were on the minds of delegates recently gathered in Ottawa to negotiate an elusive international plastics treaty. Globally, annual plastic production hit 400 million tonnes in 2019, up from 200 million tonnes twenty years earlier. The United Nations projects another doubling by 2040. Currently, about 1 percent of all plastic is sold on the Canadian market, and only 9 percent of that is ultimately recycled. Like straws themselves, the general plastic situation really sucks.

That’s what makes Corey Tochor’s private member’s bill, which would remove items like plastic straws from the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, so disconcerting. The MP from Saskatchewan says his young sons inspired the proposed legislation. “They hate the paper straw for milkshakes, for Slurpees, or anything,” he has explained. Yet many generations of boys and girls enjoyed milkshakes at the soda shop or drive‑in without plastic straws and without complaint. Given all the other problems we face today, is saving this source of permanent and damaging waste a battle worth fighting, especially since we have 7,000 years’ worth of alternative straw technology to draw upon?

In Canada, the manufacture of plastic resin and other plastic goods is worth $35 billion a year, and the sector employs some 93,000 people. Alarmingly little — whether construction materials, fruits and vegetables, or essential medical supplies — reaches us without the help of plastic. This industry is not going anywhere anytime soon. Willingly or not, we are all customers. But we should want to curb our consumption of the stuff where we can.

When it comes to beverages, many Canadians have already done so, surviving just fine the past year or two without plastic straws at McDonald’s or the local diner. However annoying at times, our transition hasn’t meant the end of the world. If federal or municipal bans are inconvenient, we should have faith that we’ll adapt soon enough, rather than overturning them. If alternatives to plastic straws contain synthetic “forever chemicals,” to which Tochor and others object, we should strive to find less harmful formulations.

I miss many things about Nebraska: football games in the fall, old running routes, dear friends, even certain foods. But plastic straws are among the many things I don’t miss one bit.

Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.