Plastic affects the environment, endangers animals, and makes its way into our food chain. Recently, the city of Vancouver, B.C. voted to ban plastic straws. ClearLife interviews Melissa Donich, who headed the successful campaign #DropTheStraw.
CL: What prompted you to start this campaign?
MD: I was motivated to launch this campaign after I moved to Vancouver from Toronto, Ontario in 2017 and completed my degree in Education at Simon Fraser University. As part of my teaching degree, I focused on Environmental Education in order to better understand the environmental issues that surrounded Vancouver and the lower mainland.
I have a passion for the outdoors and spending time in nature; whether it’s canoeing, rock climbing, camping or hiking. I was drawn towards Vancouver be closer to all of these things. However, I was immediately heartbroken when I saw how much unnecessary waste was being produced every single day in the city. It didn’t make sense to call Vancouver “The Greenest City on Earth”. I felt like we could set a better example.
Within a few months of living here, I saw an overwhelming amount of plastic being washed up along the coast of Vancouver, in the Delta landfill, and city garbage’s. I’ve done a lot of research about plastic pollution and have seen the significant harm it has on the environment. The fact is: plastic doesn’t just go away. It only breaks down smaller and smaller. All of these unnecessary plastics, such as bags, straws, packaging and cups, end up in our landfills and waterways. Furthermore, they are rapidly killing off land and marine life. And for what? For a cup of coffee that lasts a few minutes? Or a sip of water that could have easily been sipped without a plastic straw? I reached a point where I couldn’t sit idle anymore and decided to take matters into my own hands.
CL: There are so many environmental issues that need addressing, what moved you to start with the straw?
MD: After visiting some of my favourite restaurants in town, speaking with over 100 restaurant owners and managers across the city, I was able to get a good grasp on what the people wanted and what they were willing to let go of. I started with plastic straws, as they are ubiquitous, unnecessary and simply too small to recycle. They are a luxury item that is thrown into almost every drink. When you add it all up, that’s 57 million straws being thrown out every day Canada. The solution was simple: ask for the support from business owners who were willing to implement stricter policies regarding the use of plastic straws in Vancouver. For most, it was a no brainer, for others, it became an easy transition.
From a business perspective, restaurant owners save money by simply saying no to them. In the event that someone needs one, alternatives are available. Drop the Straw has been supporting local companies that sell reusable straws, such as glass or metal, as well as true compostable straws, such as paper.
We are sensitive to the fact that some plastic straws are necessary. For example, in health care and for businesses that rely on straws. When I spoke with Council on the day of the ban, there were a few bubble tea businesses that raised concern. However, the environmental issue still remains the same. We have an unnecessary and unacceptable amount of plastic waste in our landfills and in our oceans. According to scientists, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2040. We need to start somewhere, and plastic straws were an easy first step.
CL: Why plastic?
MD: Plastics are cheap, light, and impervious to water. However, these polymers are extremely dangerous to the environment when they are not properly recycled. Most of the time, they end up in our landfills and our oceans. Even a fleece sweater that is throw into the washing machine will eventually break down and its microfibers end up in the ocean.
Targeting single-use items, such as plastic cups, bags, and straws, was an easy first step towards mitigating our catastrophic plastic pollution problem on the planet.
After sitting down in various bars, restaurants and café in the city, and seeing an unnecessary amount of plastic straws being thrown out after 5 minutes, I decided to target straws first, and convince restaurant owners to change the way they operate their business.
CL: What were the biggest challenges that you faced during this campaign?
MD: The biggest challenges we faced during the straw movement was a lack of time and funding. I was working as a full-time teacher with no financial support. A few weeks leading up to our meeting with City Council, I received a Small Community Grant which helped cover some of the costs for supplies and launch the website (dropthestraw.com) to help spread awareness.
CL: Drop The Straw had great success in your Vancouver Campaign. What do you feel contributed that success?
MD: The key to success is having a strong team. I originally started on my own and soon realized I couldn’t do it all by myself. It’s important to work with people who have similar values but contribute different skills and perspectives. I asked a friend – who spent years in the restaurant industry – if he wanted to team up, and he became an extremely important asset to the team. We also had a great web designer and a few local photographers, all of whom were doing on their own time, and from the goodness of their hearts.
Secondly, I reached out to local businesses on a very personal level. I would go door-to-door, district to district, and collect hand written signatures from various restaurant owners and managers. These hand written signatures became a valid piece of information for City Council as it demonstrated their support, and a genuine interaction between the citizens of Vancouver. We need this kind of support today. People are spending way too much time in front of a computer, and not enough time outside, getting to know the people in their local community. This is vitally important for those who live in a major city, such as Vancouver. How are we going to reach any kind of agreement if we don’t spend the time to get to know one another?
Finally, when I moved to Vancouver, I realized we had a very young and environmentally-friendly Mayor, Gregor Roberston. He is extremely engaged in the community, often rides a bike, and is strongly supportive of any policies that contribute to a zero waste city.
CL: What’s next?
MD: Put an end to all single-use items. This includes: bags, cups, lids, utensils, stir sticks and any material that is harmful to the environment. We need to ban everything that is unnecessary and has a life span of only a few minutes.
CL: What advice would you give to anyone who wishes to make an impact or get involved?
MD: Start small and work your way up. I started speaking with businesses in my local community and worked my way up, eventually covering most of Vancouver.
Once you have the support from the public and the solution, it’s important to target the right audience. For example, I spoke with those in charge of implementing policies in Vancouver. Once I had enough support from local businesses, I was able to reach out to various MLA’s, the provincial government and City Council, strongly urging to speak on behalf of the petition signatories with the Mayor of Vancouver.
It is helpful to make change as an individual, but it is not enough to have a real impact. We are reaching a tipping point in society where we can no longer afford to make any more environmental mistakes.
We need to alter the way we live and take more responsibility for our actions.