How many plastic straws can you pick up on your jog?

I was sitting on the balcony with my beloved, chatting about this Ottawa Citizen piece I’d written and how I’d like to have meetings with – well, really, anyone who’d listen – about rethinking our daily habits to see where and how we might find ways to be less harmful to our environment. Doing research for my Healthy City series has turned me into a bit of a zealot, but you know, it’s amazing how many opportunities there are to make a small difference each in our own way.

No, taking my own Mason jar to Bulk Barn to buy noodles instead of getting a plastic bag of same at Walmart will not save the world. I know that. Neither will using Terra20’s “ecobar” to refill laundry detergent, shampoo and other household supplies. Neither will buying loose fruits and veggies at Farm Boy instead of grabbing prepackaged containers of kale or bags of carrots. It won’t change the world. But you know what it has done, though, in the last few weeks? It has significantly reduced the amount of plastic this little household uses as well as the quantity of waste and recycling we produce. We were already pretty lightweight on the waste front. Now we’re featherweight.

Anyway. There I was enthusing about discussing ideas to reduce our footprint on the environment just by making small changes to our daily habits. I’m especially keen on changes that don’t actually cost us much of anything, because the easier it is to do something, the more likely we are to do it. When I mentioned my Mason jars I got a terse comment from someone who said, well, what about those people who shop by bike? We can’t just carry around jars to go buy rice.

I refrained from replying because I didn’t want to sound unpleasant, but, um, if you’re buying rice to bring home on your bicycle (which is great, by the way), you have to bring the rice back. You’re already prepared to carry a certain amount of rice – and a few other things, perhaps – somehow on your bike. Maybe in a backpack. Or in a basket, or saddle bags. I agree Mason jars add a certain amount of weight. About 500g each, to be precise. Maybe you don’t want to carry that in your saddle bags. I get it. But that’s ok, because you don’t need Mason jars. It just happens to be my preferred empty container, but you could pick anything else: empty yogourt tubs, or margarine containers, or some of those reusable food containers (prices vary, not always cheap, caveat emptor, etc.) or maybe something I’m not thinking about. Which is why I’d love to have meetings and conversations with people about these things. Someone somewhere always has a good idea to share. And it’s by sharing those ideas that we improve.

None of this will change the world or save the planet by itself. But I don’t care. I believe in doing the good that’s in front of me. And I further believe that if most of us, most of the time, choose to do the good that’s in front of us, gradually the world will be a better place. I mean, the world is already pretty good as it is. But it can be better, one small act at a time.

So my beloved was listening very patiently to me bubbling up about this and when I paused for air he said, “I’ll bet you that if you took your bike to one of those meetings you’d be able to pick up a bunch of plastic straws lying on the ground and you could show up with these in your hand at your meeting and say, ‘see, I just picked these up on my way here!’”

I made that face I usually have when I don’t know what to say (not my prettiest face). Inside I was thinking, he’s exaggerating. There can’t be that many discarded plastic straws, people in Ottawa are nice, they wouldn’t do that. But I didn’t say it because the truth is, I don’t know. I never looked for straws on my bike rides.

The next morning I had an early meeting in the Glebe and decided to bike there from Nepean. A distance of about 13 km, most of it on the Experimental Farm path, which is lovely. About a third of the way there the straws came back to mind, when I spotted one lying on the ground. I have no idea how many were there before that one, but after that first one I noticed about a dozen. I didn’t pick them up because I didn’t want to stop and be late for my meeting; but I resolved to leave earlier next time and carry something to collect them because riding a bike with a handful of straws doesn’t strike me as especially safe.

Next time was Saturday morning. Not a bike ride but a jog. My usual 6.5KM route using the Knoxdale-Merivale path under the Hydro lines, looping around Woodroffe and back to Greenbank on the West Hunt Club path.

And do you know how many plastic straws I picked up?

Thirteen. Which works up to an average of two per kilometre. I didn’t go looking for them. I just picked up the ones I saw lying near the path. I don’t even want to imagine how many I would find if I actually searched for them. (Also empty cups, lids, styrofoam, cans, bottles, discarded pool noodles and for all I know an empty washing machine.) In a nice neighbourhood full of lovely people. Who seem to think they can dump their trash wherever. Two of the straws I found were damaged, probably by lawn mowers. Which means bits of their plastic are presumably scattered around, deep in the grass, for birds and small beasties to trip over and possibly ingest.

My Ottawa Citizen piece got tweeted by Catherine McKenna, the federal environment minister. (Woohoo, thanks for engagement bump.) When I looked at the replies I saw a string of comments to the effect that oh no, minister, us around here in Nice Canada aren’t responsible for all that plastic dumped into the oceans, some countries in Asia are a lot worse at this than we are.

Which is true. Statistically speaking, Canada doesn’t discard that much plastic. At least not compared to countries that are much more populous than us, which is just about everybody on earth. But the bunnies and birds who make a home near the paths where I bike and jog, do you think they care about worldwide statistics? When they accidentally ingest discarded plastic, does it hurt them less because people elsewhere pollute more than we do?

Nobody’s asking anyone to make super drastic and painful changes to their lives. But there are things we can do that don’t cost us very much. At least, if you’re going to keep using plastic straws, make an effort to dispose of them properly when you’re done sipping. If that’s all you’re prepared to do, then please do that.

Do the good that’s in front of you. It’s a simple method that works well. And if we all do it, it’ll show.

Writer | Ottawa. Books include Épître aux tartempions, Le national-syndicalisme, Down the Road Never Travelled, Not Just for Kicks, Le livre Uber (upcoming).

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