A woman holds water bottles next to a trash can under the St. Peter's Square colonnade at the Vatican July 16, 2019. A Vatican official said the Vatican is collecting 22 pounds of plastic a day from trash containers under the colonnade. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: Setting an example

  • July 22, 2019

A Vatican decision to ban single-use plastics won’t by itself empty landfills or save the planet’s oceans, but it sends a message the world needs to hear.

Plastic items such as bags, water bottles, cutlery and straws will cease to be available in the Vatican City State when current supplies are gone. The Holy See is about to practise what Pope Francis preached in Laudato Si’, his seminal 2015 encyclical on the environment that made an urgent plea for mankind to save our common home.

Granted, the ban will affect a very small geographic area. Vatican City, with less than 1,000 full-time residents and some 2,000 employees, covers about 110 acres, making it by far the world’s tiniest sovereign territory. But for a place so small it produces a lot of trash, much of it plastic refuse from millions of tourists.

Reducing the Vatican’s plastic rubbish, however, is less about making a big impact on the planet than about setting a good example. The lesson is this: big or small, rich or poor, all states and all citizens must become better ecological stewards. 

Thankfully, Canadians seem to be getting the message. With an October election on the horizon, a recent poll found that Canadians believe the environment is the most critical issue facing the nation. Cleaning up our common Canadian home ranked ahead of jobs, the economy and even health care as national priorities.

To parrot the late actor Peter Finch in his rant from the 1976 movie Network, the world is becoming as polluted as hell and, at last, we’re not going to take it any more. With vast islands of plastic waste floating in oceans, tonnes of carbon spewing into the atmosphere, rainforests being decimated, pollutants suffocating freshwater lakes and droughts turning farmland into deserts, the planet is heading towards an ecological cataclysm that will particularly devastate the poor. 

Pope Francis warned in Laudato Si’ that “doomsday predictions” can no longer be dismissed. He lamented that, without a profound change in our attitudes and lifestyles, the planet faces increasing numbers of catastrophes as we dump our “debris, desolation and filth” on future generations. 

Reducing plastic waste may be just a small part of a solution to a huge problem. But the symbolism is important.

Canadians overwhelmingly support a ban on single-use plastics and many of us would even pay a bit more for environmentally friendly replacement products, according to a recent national poll. The Liberals and the NDP promise, if elected, to follow the lead of the European Union and ban many of these items and perhaps force makers of other plastic products to pay the costs to recycle them.

By themselves, none of these measures will save the planet, but all of them are worthy. The planet needs to rid itself of unnecessary plastics long before someone unwraps the straw that breaks the planet’s back.

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