Straw men and empty suits
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems eager to give U.S. President Donald J. Trump a run for his money when it comes to the use of social media. One of PM Trudeau’s recent tweets to the citizens of our neighboring nation to the north reads, in toto… “Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. 15 billion plastic bags a year. 57 million straws a day. They end up in our oceans, beaches, parks and streets. And this has to stop. We owe it to our planet, and to your kids.”
It’s clear the leader of the 12th most powerful country on Earth is unfamiliar with the concept, “quit while you’re ahead.” If PM Trudeau had simply let his shallow knowledge on the topic of plastic waste hang in the Twittersphere to be observed as the shiny object that it is, I could have chalked it up to Trudeau being Trudeau. Had that been the case, I’d be summarizing the similarities between North Korean President Kim Jong Un and Humpty Dumpty here instead of scrutinizing the information offered up by the Inspector Clouseau of Canadian politics in an all-out effort to expose him — once again — as the empty suit he truly is.
Rather than quit while he was ahead, the affable PM decided to double down on plastic waste by holding a press conference to outline his “A Cleaner Future” initiative for Canada. After expressing the noble measures he’ll undertake to save Canada and the planet from the scourge of single-use plastic, he took questions from his adoring media. To a softball inquiry about what he and his family were personally doing to cut down on their use of these implements of evil, the prime minister offered this response:
“We, ah, we have recently switched to drinking water bottles, ah, water out of, when we have water bottles, out of, ah, plastic, ah, away from plastic towards paper, ah, like drink box water bottles-sort-of-things.” That’s when he finally decided it was time to shut up and stop digging his own grave with a plastic spork that had missed its ride to a Canadian landfill. Way to recycle, PM Trudeau!
I personally transcribed his inane answer to a simple and predictable question; I certify that it is, verbatim, his stultifying response. While the PM’s words had me wide-eyed and a little horrified, my accurate transcription fails to capture the accompanying awkward hand gestures that inspired a few hand gestures of my own, one in particular. Mind you, I don’t think PM Trudeau is an empty suit because he bungled a perfect opportunity to lead by example. Instead he invited the aforementioned scrutiny I’m about to heap upon him for his goofy-grin ignorance with which his nation’s media is allowing him to get away.
While I’m giving Trudeau a pass on playing the “do it for the kids” card, let’s train a critical eye on one particular aspect of his tweet: 57 million straws a day.
Holy cow, that’s a lot of straws, eh?
PM Trudeau expects us to believe that Canada’s 37 million people throw away 57 million straws every day. That’s approximately 1.5 straws per day for every man, woman, ze/hir and child in Canada. On its surface that’s pretty hard to swallow (particularly without a sip from a straw to moisten the throat) but let’s dig a little deeper. Where did PM Trudeau get that statistic?
Since he’s not returning my calls, I conclude that he likely referenced a document issued by the city of Vancouver entitled, “Single-Use Items Reduction Strategy for 2018-2025” which states, “Canadians throw out approximately 57 million plastic straws a day.” A quick glance at the footnote reads, “Assuming the same usage rate in Canada as estimated in the U.S.” That footnote goes on to reference its source, a web address, ecocycle.org/bestrawfree.
A quick hop over to view the website that is apparently an authority on plastic waste in the northern hemisphere reveals that the Canadian number was derived from the estimated 500 million plastic straws per day tossed out by U.S. citizens. The “Be Straw Free” initiative was launched in 2011 by Milo Cress, who earned his PhD. in environmental science from … oops, the website makes it clear that Cress is not a scientist, although he’s racked-up a number of Science Fair awards through the years.
The “Be Straw Free” projects (which has since been absconded by the folks at ecocycle.org) was the brainchild of nine-year-old Milo Cress, a Vermont resident (that explains a lot) who “called around” various straw manufacturers to come up with his whopping 500 million straws-a-day usage in the U.S.
Allow me to summarize that last sentence: The kid made it up.
Although I suppose it’s possible that little Milo completed his investigative industry research after school, after soccer practice, after spending quality time building his Lego Death Star and after carrying his family’s recyclables to the curb, I, for one, would be more comfortable basing a national crusade to ban plastic straws across North America on actual science and real numbers rather than the guesstimate of a child, especially since our livability issues coast-to-coast have little to do with our usage of straws, plastic or otherwise.
What is most troublesome about this made-up figure is that it pops up sans footnote in numerous publications across the land. Conducting about the same amount of research little Milo squeezed in between brushing his teeth and crawling into bed to listen to his bedtime story, I’d be willing to bet that the 500-million-straw-per-day figure is referenced, as well, in numerous environmental reports such as Vancouver’s Single-Use Items Reduction Strategy. It makes me wonder what other phony-baloney statistics are being used to drive local, state and federal policy.
Despite the made-up statistic, anyone who disagrees with these environmental policies … anyone who dares sip a Coca-Cola from a one-use plastic straw … is a stupid, hateful anti-environment ne’er-do-well who wants our children to drink contaminated water, breathe polluted air and die painful deaths.
That intentional misrepresentation of anyone who dares question environmentalists is the clever use of the straw man fallacy at its finest. Since when did it become heresy to insist that our government officials not feed us a load of cow manure to get what they want? Keep your eye on the shiny plastic straw, people, so our government officials’ lack of consensus, lack of action and lack of will to tackle the problems they are expected to solve will escape our scrutiny, at least until after the next election.
I’m not suggesting we disregard our responsibilities to our communities, our fellow human beings, or to our wildlife by overburdening our environment with worthless objects, single-use plastic included. What I am suggesting is that the adults in the room leave the be-straw-free projects to school children until they solve the growing number of critical issues that threaten the future of our nation.
Patra Taylor has been a columnist and features correspondent for the Charleston Mercury since 2002. Please visit her website at patrataylor.com.