Of all the plastic waste that washes ashore around the Pacific Rim, Tofino Mayor Dan Law says plastic utensils — forks, spoons, knives and coffee stir sticks — are among the most common.
“There is a lot of takeout food that’s taken to the beach and plastic utensils end up in the garbage cans or they are left on the beach … they always find their way to the water,” said Law.
Now the tourist community on the edge of the Pacific is taking the lead to get rid of them — and make a small dent in the amount of plastics that end up in the water and on the beaches.
The District of Tofino is the first municipality in the province to ban all single-use plastic utensils, amending a bylaw last month that already outlaws plastic bags, straws and polystyrene containers for takeout food.
And neighbouring Ucluelet is expected to follow by beefing up its own bylaw by the end of the month. “It’s a great step forward in fighting all this plastic pollution,” said Law.
The community is flooded with about one million tourists every year, and is expected to be at capacity this year with the opening of the U.S. border and completion this summer of improvements to Highway 4, which provides access to Tofino and Ucluelet.
Businesses will have until late August to comply with the new rules and switch to wood- or paper-based cutlery, but Law said all local restaurants and eateries are onboard and most have already eliminated plastic utensils.
Picnic Charcuterie, a deli and specialized grocer in Tofino that serves takeaway for locals and tourists, has been using compostable bamboo-based utensils and containers for two years.
“Tofino is mostly green or trying very hard to be,” said Michele Dimitrov, retail sales manager for Picnic Charcuterie. “We have been hyper-aware of this issue for a long time.”
Far West Distributors, which provides wholesale services to Tofino and Ucluelet, has already swapped out plastic utensils and polystyrene containers as the region’s businesses shift to greener alternatives.
General manager Charles Tsang said the company has been sourcing increasing amounts of paper straws and wood cutlery and compostable containers for two years and doesn’t even distribute the plastics anymore because the demand no longer exists.
Tsang said the same applies to many cleaning and paper products for the region’s hotels and resorts, which are using more eco-friendly products for laundries and other guest items, such as bamboo toilet paper and tissues.
In a recent report, environmental group Surfrider Pacific Rim, which has been doing beach cleanups since 2015, says plastic utensils are the seventh most commonly collected plastics on beaches. The cutlery, which includes chopsticks and coffee stir sticks, is made from plastic that isn’t recyclable or compostable, so it ends up in landfills.
Surfrider says plastic cutlery contributes to Canada’s “abysmal” recycling rate of 9%, leading to more plastics in landfills, the environment and incinerators. It says items like plastic cutlery that can’t be recycled depend on greenhouse-gas-intensive virgin materials, which need to be continually replenished.
“Every year, Canada emits 1.89 million metric tonnes of C02 in effort to replace the 91% of lost and discarded plastic every year,” said the report.
Although there are no estimates for Canada, a report in Forbes said Americans discard about 40 billion pieces of plastic cutlery a year.
The Ocean Conservancy lists cutlery as among the items most deadly to sea turtles, birds and mammals worldwide.
Surfrider said 45 businesses in Tofino and Ucluelet already use wood or paper-based alternatives to plastic cutlery and others that will be converting to support the plastic ban.
In December, the federal government released draft regulations to ban six kinds of single-use plastics — cutlery, grocery bags, straws and stir sticks, six-pack rings and hard-to-recycle takeout containers — by the end of 2023. But there is a loophole. Canadian manufacturers can continue to make the products for export, which has angered critics, because plastics are a global pollution issue.
“Our vision is to make the West Coast a leader in addressing plastic pollution in Canada, lighting the way for other locales to look to and follow,” said Amorita Adair, chair of Surfrider Pacific Rim.
Many Greater Victoria municipalities have already banned plastic grocery bags, and are looking at eliminating other single-use items.