Tofino’s municipal council declined a request to ban plastic straws last week.
Speaking as a delegation during June 28’s regular council meeting, Surfrider Pacific Rim volunteers Michelle Hall and Lilly Woodbury presented council with an impassioned plea to ban plastic straws but did not find any councillors willing to support the idea.
The local Surfrider chapter is coming off a successful ‘Straws Suck’ campaign that saw about 40 local businesses voluntarily agree not to offer plastic straws to their patrons.
“The issue is the campaign is not a legally binding agreement,” Woodbury said.
“Instead of Surfrider taking on the responsibility of enforcing the social contract, we’re hoping the municipality can implement a bylaw.”
She said the bylaw would allow the foundation to continue the campaign’s trajectory while focusing its efforts on the broader Ocean Friendly Business Certification program it has launched in an effort to “influence businesses to change their operations to be more sustainable, regenerative and ocean friendly.”
Woodbury said eliminating plastic straws is the first step towards achieving the certification and, with straws in their rear view mirror, many local businesses would see the next steps as achievable.
She said Tofino must take steps to reduce the amount of single-use plastics being consumed and disposed of in town and added plastic does not decompose.
“It breaks down into increasingly smaller pieces which cause a bigger hazard to the environment as it becomes more widespread, way harder to clean up and more easily absorbed by flora and fauna,” she said.
“How many more straws are we going to allow to enter the ocean before we get the point?”
She cited the Tofino Shorebird Festival and Pacific Rim Whale Festival while suggesting Tofino should be protecting the wildlife it celebrates.
“What we need to be aware of is that 44 per cent of all seabirds on the planet have consumed plastic and 22 per cent of all cetaceans on the planet have also consumed plastic,” she said.
“This is their home as much as it is ours and we can honour them with festivals but we can honour them further with environmental law.”
She added the area’s landscape is a key draw for tourists that could be sullied if measures aren’t taken to address single-use plastics like straws.
“On the coast, our lives revolve in and around the ocean that we say we love. This town is economically supported by tourists who visit this area for the vitality of the beaches and the ocean,” she said.
“If we’re going to walk our talk we need to eliminate single use plastic as much as we possible can; keep it out of the water and off of the land…We can be among many tourist hot spots that are overcrowded, littered, and overall exploited however we also have the opportunity here to evolve sustainably.”
She suggested a straw ban in Tofino would have far-reaching impacts because of the town’s tourism economy.
“We can influence visitors to change their behaviours to act in accordance with the values we create a framework for,” she said.
“In considering this, we have to ask ourselves: ‘Is our environment sacred or is it something to compromise for the sake of convenience and capital.”
She said Tofino enjoys international notoriety as an environmentally minded community and tasked Tofino’s council with ensuring the town’s actions match its reputation.
“We can continue to cultivate this history and, in order to do so, we need to ensure business and commerce develop in a way that supports it,” she said.
“It’s been proven time and time over again that social contracts and self-monitoring among corporations and governments doesn’t work. Law is needed to create accountability and actual consequences.”
Woodbury noted Tofino’s council signed a declaration in April 2015 that gives all locals the right to a healthy environment.
“The council believes, with this declaration, that all people have the right to live in a healthy environment, including: the right to breathe clean air, drink and access clean water, eat safe and healthy food, access nature, know about pollutants and contaminants released into the environment and participate in decision making that will affect our environment,” she said.
“Within this jurisdiction, the district of Tofino has certain authority to respect, protect, fulfill and promote these rights and we are right there with you.”
After hearing the presentation, Tofino’s councillors thanked the Surfrider Foundation but refused to move ahead with any sort of bylaw.
Coun. Al Anderson suggested the district could find itself in hot water if it made straws illegal.
“One of the difficulties that municipalities face is potential legal action from the plastics industry,” he said.
“It’s not always as easy as you’d think…There are difficulties in bringing forth these bylaws.”
Coun. Dorothy Baert said she supported the ‘Straws Suck’ campaign but would not support a bylaw.
“One of the things that always comes up if you have a bylaw is how do you enforce it,” she said. “It’s a pretty blunt instrument to use to make a point.”
Coun. Cathy Thicke also spoke against a bylaw.
“Having a bylaw is a little bit tricky for us,” she said. Thicke wondered why straws were being targeted and not other single-use plastics.
Hall responded the foundation saw eliminating straws as an accomplishable goal that would start a conversation about single-use plastics in general.
Thicke said Tofino should tackle other single-use plastics, like water bottles, by fostering an attitude of environmental stewardship without the use of a bylaw and said Tourism Tofino has “a lot of marketing dollars” that could support this approach.
“People come here and they honestly don’t know that the water is safe to drink so they go to the Co-op and they buy all these flats of water [bottles] and it just blows my mind,” she said.
“Somehow we’ve got to get it across to them that, actually, the water is probably the best in the world right here.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster said a straw ban was unrealistic.
“Straws may suck but bylaws that you can’t enforce suck as well,” he said.
“We have enough bylaws in this town that we’re not enforcing...I cannot see a bylaw officer going around checking on who’s using straws.’
Woodbury doubted the straw ban would swamp Tofino’s bylaw enforcement team.
“I don’t think it would take too much energy,” she said. “I don’t think it would be a crazy responsibility and it’s going to add legitimacy to what we’re doing…When you have a law, people take that seriously.’
Mayor Josie Osborne said she appreciated the foundation’s efforts but could not support the bylaw and asked to attend the foundation’s next board meeting to talk about her own past experiences.
“I have been in your very shoes standing in that place speaking to a mayor and council asking them to pass a bylaw on banning vehicle idling, which we actually have right now,” she said.
“Now I’m on this side of the table and I understand much better the challenges that we have in resourcing bylaw enforcement.”
She said Tofino’s anti-idling bylaw she helped initiate is ineffective.
“There’s no proactive work that’s done to it and our staff don’t have the time to do it. There’s no non profits that we’re partnering with to do it. It’s very difficult to enforce and now, year’s later, I ask myself why we have it,” she said.
“It does send another message to have a bylaw that you’re not enforcing.”
She suggested there are other mechanisms to achieve the foundation’s goal of a strawless Tofino.
“Straws aren’t enough, so to go through the incredible work of creating a bylaw for straws and then adding and adding and adding, even if that’s the right tool, is probably not the best approach,” she said.
“I don’t want you to leave feeling discouraged…By taking the time to do something right we can make it last.”