04/07/2016 04:00 EDT | Updated 04/08/2017 01:12 EDT

Campaign on West Coast strives to crush thirst for plastics, one straw at a time

VANCOUVER — Some businesses in an ocean-side town on Vancouver Island are eliminating plastic drinking straws, taking a first slug against plastic waste.

Businesses in the tourist destination of Tofino have been asked to stop routinely handing out straws and to provide biodegradable options on request, said Michelle Hall, co-chair of a non-profit group that's spearheading the campaign.

"They're really quite useless, we can say goodbye to straws," said Hall, who is with the Pacific Rim chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

"I just wanted to start with something that was way more achievable."

All but eight of 30 businesses have agreed to go straw-free as part of the "Straws Suck" campaign launched in early March, said Hall. She's hoping the holdouts will get on board by Earth Day on April 22.

Straws are one of the top ten pieces of trash gathered in beach cleanups around the world, the foundation says.

But single-use plastics, which include straws, accumulate in much greater volumes. The foundation says at least 20 million tonnes of plastic litter enters the ocean every year, disintegrating as a result of sand and sun.

About 88 per cent of debris collected during the last cleanup on Tofino's South Chesterman beach was plastic, Hall added.

She said people don't recognize the impact of straws on beaches or in landfills.

"People don't have that much of a connection to where that straw goes after they've drank their drink and left it for their server to collect," she said. "The straw goes into the bin." 

The Long Beach Lodge Resort, which is popular with surfers, has stopped its practice of using 12,000 straws each year.

"It's one of those things where you don't know what you don't know," said the resort's executive chef, Ian Riddick. "We were serving straws and plastic picks and doing what we were doing for decades."

Riddick said the decision was a "no-brainer," noting it's expensive and uses energy to transport straws to the resort by truck with other products. 

"Our guests really do get it," he said. "It was really simple. And change isn't always simple in business."

The resort will offer corn starch straws to diners on request, while other biodegradable options available across Tofino are made from paper and bamboo.

The Tofino Chamber of Commerce is helping the campaign to bulk purchase paper alternatives for businesses that need a hand, Hall said.

Several owners were concerned about the expense and sourcing of biodegradable options, she said.

People in the town of 1,800 launch into conversations about reducing plastic waste when they notice the straws are gone, Hall said. She expects more positive feedback when the town swells to 22,000 visitors daily during its high-season in the summer.

The next targets in the campaign against single-use plastics are plastic bags, and eventually plastic water bottles and plastic coffee cups, Hall said.

"We invited people to get involved ... and the reaction has been awesome," she said. "We know the town is ready."

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Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press