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Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, announces the ban of single-use plastics, at a beach, on June 20, in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Those in the know will still be able to get their hands on the good stuff – which is to say, bendable plastic straws – even after the Canadian government bans certain single-use plastics Tuesday. But you can only get them if you know what to do.

Like other harmful products, such as cigarettes and marijuana, plastic straws sold in packages of 20 or more will not be allowed to be visible on retail store shelves. Of course! It would surely be inappropriate to display them in places where children shop with their parents, or where sea turtles could be triggered by the thought of those straws getting stuck up their noses.

Instead, packages of the quasi-illicit products will have to be kept in the back, only available to those who know to ask store clerks whether they are available. Such is the compromise between disability advocates, who insisted that single-use flexible straws be available in some capacity to those who require them, and the Canadian government, which is following through on its long-heralded promise to ban (some) plastic products that are (often) only used once in order to (somewhat) curb the environmental impact of plastic waste in Canada.

A quick dive into the fine print, as well as the research and analysis cited by the government in terms of what this ban hopes to achieve, suggests that the policy may be mostly symbolic. Data from Ocean Wise Shoreline Cleanup, a conservation initiative in Canada, indicate that cigarette butts are the most commonly found form of litter on shorelines, a finding backed up internationally by the 2020 Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup report. Some items on the government’s banned list – including plastic grocery bags, straws and takeout containers – do make the top 10 of plastic materials littering our oceans, but they are eclipsed in quantity several times over by plastic food wrappers and cigarettes.

Research on consumer usage of the plastic bags that the government is banning indicate that the vast majority of consumers – more than 77 per cent, according to a 2017 Recyc-Quebec study – reuse so-called “single-use” plastic bags for things such as lining small household garbage bins, and that cotton bags have to be used between 100 and nearly 3,000 times for their environmental impact to be equivalent to that of the plastic bag (granted, reusable bags made of other materials, such as woven polypropylene, have to be reused far less).

A strategic environmental assessment of the costs and benefits of the government’s single-use plastic ban also suggests that while the elimination of these products will reduce plastic waste (though only by about 3 per cent of the total estimated plastic waste generated in Canada each year), the benefits could be offset by the higher climate-change consequences of producing alternatives (for example, through the use of coal-fired electricity to make reusable bags in other countries). And in terms of financial costs, the government’s analysis estimates the program will see a net negative in the realm of $1.384-billion, with low- and fixed-income Canadians feeling the added consumer costs most acutely.

Perhaps one could still make the case that it is better to pursue an imperfect ban than none at all – that despite the additional financial, air-quality and water-quality costs, the minimal impact the ban will have on water waste, and the frustration consumers will experience loading up their reusable shopping bags with plastic-wrapped produce and boxes of plastic bags for their kitchen garbages, an incoherent, seemingly arbitrary ban may still lead to more comprehensive, coherent legislation in the future. But this government has developed something of a reputation for pursuing big, splashy, incomplete legislation with little regard for its unintended consequences.

What’s more, the timing of the ban’s implementation may be less politically advantageous than the Liberals hoped. Canadians look around now and see inflated food prices, hospitals in crisis, limited availability of children’s medications, enormous visa backlogs, housing shortages in many cities across the country, record demands on food banks and so on, and here comes the federal government to announce … plastic stir sticks won’t be manufactured or imported any more. It’s as if Canada’s roof is caving in, and the landlord has called a repairman to fix its toaster.

Granted, this timing was predetermined, and competent governments should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But walking is generally the more important activity, and in this case, the gum might inadvertently end up on the bottom of people’s shoes. Maybe this ban will nevertheless prove to be worth it in the end – or maybe we’re asking people to handle plastic straws as if they are contraband for nothing.