Plastic straws are off the menu in Tofino
TOFINO, B.C. — Restaurants in Tofino are putting the issue of plastic waste on the table, by self-regulating the use of drinking straws.
In early 2016, the Pacific Rim chapter of the Surfrider Foundation was looking for a way to contribute to the global organization’s Rise Above Plastics program. While many chapters work to eliminate the use of plastic bags, the Tofino-based group decided drinking straws were a more identifiable symbol of single use waste items.
“We decided it would be perfect for Tofino and Ucluelet. We’re a small community of 1,800 people that live here year round,” said Michelle Hall, chair of the local Surfrider chapter. “During the summer, we get up to 30,000 tourists a day and we’re a huge foodie town. The restaurant scene is really big.”
While plastic waste was a common nuisance found during the group’s beach cleanups, straws were abundant at restaurants.
“What we were seeing was people sit down at their table and be greeted with a glass of water with a plastic straw in it,” Hall said. “You’d see people pick the straw up and leave it on the table.”
Surfrider launched the Straws Suck campaign, which included an online video questioning the actual need for straws.
“We kind of made fun of the idea of having to use straws. Restaurants loved it and they picked up on the idea right away,” Hall said.
Wolf in the Fog was the first Tofino restaurant to sign a Straws Suck pledge, followed by Long Beach Lodge.
“And on it went, this domino effect,” Hall said. “They started challenging each other on social media.”
Surfrider found 25 of the town’s 40 foodservice establishments offered straws to their guests. By Earth Day (April 22), the group had a signature from every restaurant pledging to remove plastic straws from their inventory.
“Some used up what they had left, others got rid of them right away,” Hall said, adding some straws were donated to local schools for art projects as well as a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.
At Long Beach Lodge, signing the Straws Suck pledge eliminated the use of about 12,000 straws per year.
“It fell in line with our environmental message from the lodge, and we’re on a pristine beach, we want to keep it that way,” said Long Beach Lodge head chef Ian Riddick. “From a restaurant perspective, the cost savings is there for sure.”
With neighbouring restaurants challenging each other to take the pledge, getting community-wide consensus wasn’t difficult.
“No restaurant wants to get left out on something like this,” Riddick said.
“If you can get four or five of the big players working towards a common goal, nobody wants to be left out.”
Part of the campaign’s success was creating a solution, rather than demanding a government-enforced ban.
“We did it without government; it was boots on the ground, knocking on doors,” Hall said. “We’re finding our community is really engaged, it takes a community to make this work.”
The approach appealed to restaurateurs, Riddick explained.
“A lot of times when things are legislated, we get our backs up and you take the opposite position, because maybe you’re afraid of the worst,” he said. “Surfrider was fun to work with. It’s a great way to move new initiatives forward.”
Removing straws from beverages didn’t elicit much of a response from guests, Riddick added.
“Sometimes in restaurants we over-prepare for backlash. It was actually underwhelming how much people cared that we didn’t do it,” Riddick said.
“Certain guests absolutely applauded us for the decision, and we did have guests who thought it was a little bit strange.”
For customers unable to drink straight from a glass, restaurants keep biodegradable straws on hand that are distributed upon request.
“There are some people that need a straw for medical needs, but generally we don’t need straws,” Hall said.
The successful campaign in Tofino has drawn interest from communities in Guelph, Ont., San Francisco and Costa Rica.
“It’s great to be able to share something like this,” Hall said.
In Tofino, Surfrider continues to work with restaurants to ensure the Straws Suck pledge is honoured.
“We have dedicated volunteers that work on the campaign to check in with restaurants now and then,” Hall said. “We take it pretty seriously.”
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