Good news is rare on the environmental front, but Ottawa’s recent announcement that it will ban six ubiquitous plastic products, including straws and utensils, was a reason for hope. But while it’s a step in the right direction, this measure completely fails to attack the root of the problem: single use.

Single use basically refers to packaging or a product that is used only once. Once used, it is no longer usable. Examples of this abound in our daily lives, especially in the food industry.

The big problem with single use is that its impacts extend far beyond the materials that are used. The federal ban announced a few weeks ago see a transition from the prohibited single-use plastic items to products made from other materials, like wood or cardboard.

So isn’t this an improvement?

Sure, since plastic is an extremely problematic material that takes a long time to degrade in the environment. It can also have harmful effects on our health and, as a petroleum-derived product, it is directly linked to the fossil fuel industry.

But will the government’s announced ban significantly reduce the quantity of materials ending up in our landfill sites or littering Canada’s natural environment?

Sadly, the answer is “no, not really.”

Whether a single-use product is made of plastic or is recyclable, compostable or biodegradable, it takes resources to manufacture it, to transport it and manage its end of life. Therefore, the government’s announcement will not significantly reduce the pressure placed on resource development and waste, which is the problem we must address.

Take for example the bamboo fork that will eventually replace the plastic fork we commonly use to eat our poutine. Even if it is composted as planned (which is not always the case), a lot of resources and energy will have been required to harvest the bamboo (most likely in Asia, so, not exactly locally-sourced), fashion it into a fork, and transport it by ship and then by truck before we can finally use it to eat our poutine here in Canada.

Instead, what if the restaurant provided a metal fork that could be washed between each sitting and used hundreds if not thousands of times? And if I ordered take-out poutine, would it be so inconvenient to keep a small set of reusable utensils in my glove compartment for such an occasion?


Rather than piecemeal bans, the government should propose an overarching vision to move away from this “throw-away” culture. Disposable items should be used in rare, specific contexts, such as the medical field. And even there, alternatives exist.

What we need is a national strategy to reduce single use – coupled with the necessary funding to deploy reusable alternatives. This strategy must foster a change in our habits, rather than simply a change in the materials used to package things that we often end up throwing away. The government must make this transition simple and affordable for everyone.

We know the solutions to get out of this cycle of waste: reusable drink and food containers. A number of businesses and small organizations have developed solutions right here in Quebec. Examples include La tasse coffee mugs, Retournzy lunch boxes, returnable milk bottles or those good old brown beer bottles, which are reused 15 to 25 times. It’s now time for these solutions to be rolled out on a large scale, but to do so, we need the means to match our ambitions. Reuse is a big part of the solution to our throw-away problems, so it must be funded accordingly.

So let’s stop viewing the plastic issue through the hole in the straw – whether it’s biodegradable or not – and broaden our perspective to attack the problem at its source. We are ready to embrace this change, so let’s do this!

- Amélie Côté is a source reduction analyst with Équiterre