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Taking on an ocean of plastic garbage, one straw at a time

Restaurants are jumping on board in the movement to help reduce the amount of waste washing up on Tofino's shores by eliminating single-use plastic straws

A pile of scrap metal, chains, tires, a pylon, boat window, plastic fencing, and a garden hose are some of the items found during the Surfrider Pacific Rim Christmas Jingle Cleanup Event along the Tofino harbour shorefront near the 4th Street government dock and marina on Dec. 2, 2016.

The Globe and Mail looks at businesses, services and other projects in British Columbia that aren't often talked about because they actually work.

It started last January with the Wolf in the Fog.

One of Tofino's abundant upscale eateries, the Wolf in the Fog signed a pledge to a local environmental organization to stop supplying single-use plastic straws as part of a campaign to reduce the amount of waste contaminating the oceans and washing up on the beaches of this West Coast beach town.

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Over Twitter, the chefs of Tofino took up the challenge and passed it on.

"#Tofino plastic free in 2016? @wolfinthefog started it @greatroom on board, next?" tweeted Ian Riddick, head chef of the Long Beach Lodge restaurant, the Great Room.

Volunteers unload and sort debris and garbage they found during the Surfrider Pacific Rim Christmas Jingle Cleanup Event along the Tofino harbour shorefront near the 4th Street government dock and marina on Dec. 2, 2016.

The campaign, dubbed Straws Suck, was spearheaded by Surfrider Pacific Rim chair Michelle Hall. She came to Tofino four years ago, discovered cold-water surfing off the resort town's spectacular wild shores, and stayed. "When I first came here, it was October and it was snowing and I took a guide from Surf Sisters. And I was like, 'Wow! People do this?' It was quite easy to fall in love with Tofino."

But she also saw the garbage washing up from the Pacific. The detritus is sometimes obvious, such as the three-metre-high remains of a shipping container that washed up on the beach after tumbling off the deck of the Hanjin Seattle cargo ship in November. More often it is subtle – the rainbow-coloured sheen of microplastics left behind by a retreating surf.

Ross O’Connell carries plastic fencing and scrap wood that he cleaned up during the Surfrider Pacific Rim Christmas Jingle Cleanup Event along the Tofino harbour shorefront near the 4th Street government dock and marina on Dec. 2, 2016.

Every month, Surfrider hosts a beach cleanup for locals and tourists alike, a social event that helps fuel discussion about how individual actions can come back to roost.

With some encouragement from Surfrider, local school kids host their own cleanups now and then make art out of the reclaimed debris. "The kids here are heavily involved in the beach, in the surf competitions, They are clued in, they recognize the effects of their own consumer choices," Ms. Hall said. "The conversations they were having among themselves, about the things they are cleaning up – cigarette butts, plastic bottles – it's not an angry response, but they are looking for solutions."

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The business community was open to finding solutions as well. To date, 25 Tofino restaurants have pledged to ban straws.

A lock and chain, rusted scrap metal, and a rake are some of the items collected during the Surfrider Pacific Rim Christmas Jingle Cleanup Event along the Tofino harbour shorefront near the 4th Street government dock and marina on Dec. 2, 2016.

The Great Room was the second restaurant to pick up the challenge. Samantha Hackett, director of operations at the Long Beach Lodge, said it wasn't hard to make the change.

"It's such a simple campaign with such a huge impact," she said. "When we looked at our menu, pretty much every evening drink, every kid's juice, was served with a straw," Ms. Hackett said. "Martinis were pretty much the only cocktail without one." But when the lodge staff looked at the environmental cost – at the straws that wash up on beaches, clog streams and end up being ingested by wildlife – it didn't fit the company's sustainability ethic. "Everything can be served without a straw. It was just changing the mentality."

Connor Paone cleans up debris, including a discarded tire, during the Surfrider Pacific Rim Christmas Jingle Cleanup Event along the Tofino harbour shorefront near the 4th Street government dock and marina on December 2, 2016.

Since last April, the restaurant has offered a biodegradable straw – a corn-based product – upon request. Mostly though, she said, it has simply sparked some good conversations with patrons. "Staff bought in; it was a simple switch."

Ms. Hall is preparing for the next local Surfrider campaign for 2017, this time to promote a ban on plastic bags in Tofino. It's her expression of love for a community she has adopted as home. Born in Liverpool, England, Ms. Hall grew up as an environmental activist alongside her mother and siblings, "cheering 'Ban the Bomb' from our push cars in peaceful protests."

Cleaning up beaches has long been a reflex for her and when she was approached to take over leadership of the Pacific Rim chapter of the international Surfrider Foundation, it seemed like a perfect match. "I love to surf. I love the environment. It brought it together in one place."

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