Renting a Giant Rubber Duck to Celebrate Canada's 150th Is Silly and Irresponsible

via. Redpath Waterfront Festival

Aren't we supposed to avoid putting plastics into our beautiful freshwater lakes?

When the Ontario government announced that it would mark Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration this July by renting the world’s largest rubber duck for $71,000 and parading it around six provincial harbors, many Ontarians were outraged. Since when did a gigantic rubber duck become a meaningful symbol of this proud northern nation?

Politician Rick Nicholls called it “an absurd waste of taxpayers’ dollars... an absolute cluster duck” during question period in Parliament. Tourism minister Eleanor McMahon disagreed: “It’s an important contribution... and just another example of the fun that people are going to have this summer.”

Opinions are deeply divided on the topic of the rubber duck, which is why I was pleased to hear it debated earlier this week on CBC Radio’s call-in program, Ontario Today. The more I listened to callers’ opposing opinions, as well as the explanations provided by the duck’s co-owner, Ryan Whaley, the more repulsion I felt for this enormous duck that is scheduled to land near my house within a few weeks.

There are a lot of practical reasons why I think paying thousands of dollars for a huge rubber duck is stupid, but my biggest issue with it is symbolic. The idea of floating an enormous piece of plastic in the Great Lakes as a way of expressing celebration makes me sick. We are supposed to be getting plastic out of our rivers, lakes, and oceans, not putting it in. Even the UN has declared war on plastics as part of its Clean Seas campaign.

I understand that the duck is not garbage (yet), and presumably would not be leaving bits of itself behind, but there’s a cultural intimacy with plastic that must be shattered in order for environmental progress to be made. We need to stop using plastic in frivolous ways – and I cannot think of anything more frivolous than a six-storey rubber duck, even if it already exists. Renting it is a vote of support for its existence.

And yet, the province of Ontario, whose Liberal government likes to sound progressive on environmental protection and moving away from fossil fuels, would fork out tens of thousands to elevate to celebrity status a giant, off-gassing vinyl toy by floating it in the world’s most famous freshwater lakes? It’s riduckulous, er, ridiculous.

It’s not just the plastic material used to make the duck (in China, no less!), but also the tremendous amount of energy required to operate it that ruffles my feathers. Owner Ryan Whaley, from Ohio, told CBC rather proudly:

“It’s a very big operation to move the duck around. It travels on a semi truck. It is attached to a 10-ton pontoon barge that has to be assembled and disassembled every time, using a crane and eight to 10 guys. It takes almost a day to get it inflated. While inflated, it must be maintained by a crew to make sure it’s retaining air.”

Even Whaley’s ownership is being questioned. Dutch designer Florentin Hofman, who came up with the original giant rubber duck (pictured below) as an environmental statement ten years ago, claims the design was stolen from him -- a suggestion that Whaley protested vigorously on air.

gentle environmentalists

© Florentijn Hofman

The Ontario government has missed a fabulous opportunity to make a big statement here. They’ve settled for the immediate gratification of a few novelty Instagram shots, without taking into consideration the long-term implications of such a choice.

So many other possibilities come to mind. Imagine if they had at least chosen a Canadian animal, like a beaver or a loon, and made it out of biodegradable materials, like wood or birch bark? Or they could have employed Canadian artists to create a beautiful creature that would remain on permanent display in the province to remind us of this special time -- not return to its home in a foreign country.

A floating animal could have been turned into a powerful environmental statement by using recycled materials or even plastic trash collected from the Great Lakes. After all, if we love the material so much, why not put our obsession with it on full display? No doubt it will be our archaeological legacy someday.