A group of elementary school students in Brantford, Ontario push city council to study if a plastic straw ban will be put forward.

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Author: Michelle Ruby, The Brantford Expositor

The single-use plastic straw is a small thing that is stirring up a big controversy.

But a group of elementary school students passionate about the environment discovered they didn’t need to fight city hall to have their voices heard.

Five Grade 8 girls from Russell Reid School who call themselves The Future got full support from city councillors at a meeting on Tuesday to investigate a city-wide ban on single-use plastic straws.

Councillors unanimously agreed to a resolution put forward by Coun. John Sless to have city staff analyze the impacts of single-use plastic straws in the municipality and how to reduce those impacts through their regulation and prohibition.

“I really felt like we were heard by them,” student Patia Karmiris said of the councillors. “I feel like they’re going to help us make a change.”

Other members of The Future are Charlotte Devries, Victoria Windle, Hannah Clark and Grace Powless.

The girls, all 13, came together about a month ago to organize a plastic lid collecting project at their Cambridge Drive school. That led to an outdoor rally at the school in February to raise awareness about climate change. They asked Sless to join them and later shared with the veteran Ward 2 councillor their ideas about a straw ban and about promoting the implementation of a green bin program in the city.

“A lot of people don’t like a lot of change,” said Clark. “We thought we’d start with something small.”

The students made a presentation to councillors, complete with video showing the devastating impact of plastic in oceans, and innovative alternatives to plastic straws, including a Mexico company making the drinking tubes from avocado pits.

The Future group is being supported by the environmental group at Pauline Johnson Collegiate, which has organized a petition to ban plastic straws.

“You’ve really shone a light on something that folks my age didn’t really think about,” said Sless.

He said he had concerns, though, about how a straw ban could impact a longtime Brantford factory, Stone Straw, which employs about 60 people.

Stone Straw on Plant Farm Boulevard manufactures about 300 types of plastic straws, stirrers, plastic cups and lids. But the company, reacting to growing consumer, food service and hospitality industry demand on limiting the environmental impact of single-use, non-degradable plastic products, is also now making biodegradable straws, along with paper and compostable plant-based ones.

Those more environmentally-friendly products, introduced just a little more than a year ago, already account for 20 per cent of Stone Straw’s business, said Rick Babington, president and chief operating officer of Wentworth Technologies, the company’s parent company . He expects that growth to continue.

Babington said the city’s study into a possible ban plastic straws didn’t come as a surprise.

“Straws have been a focus as it relates to ocean plastics.”

Canadians throw out millions of straws every day, which can take up to 200 years to decompose. But, said Babington, straws account for just 0.03 per cent of ocean plastic, with the vast majority of the material coming from Asia.

“Wentworth has been on a journey to get research on ocean plastic and climate change. You have go go beyond the numbers so you can understand the root cause.”

Richard Leadbetter, principal at Russell Reid, said a representative from Stone Straw will be meeting with him and The Future group.

Part of the directive from councillors to city staff is to consult with the public and impacted industries, including retail stores, restaurants, and manufacturers and distributors. Staff will come back with a report to council that will include timelines to, in the first phase, regulate the sale and distribution of plastic straws and, in the final phase, prohibit their sale and distribution.

Mayor Kevin Davis told the Russell Reid students that Brantford could pass along its results to other municipalities.

“Before you know it, it’s repeated across the province and beyond.”

“It’s amazing,” said Leadbetter of his students’ work. “At first we had no idea how big it would become. They really believe that if they can get people on the train they can make a big difference.”

Vancouver has banned plastic straws and the City of St. Catharines recently passed a ban in its municipal facilities. The ban includes plastic straws and stir sticks for sale and use in city facilities, parks, city-run events and public spaces and requires non-plastic, compostable alternatives be used when necessary. Several large restaurant chains also stopped using plastic straws.

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