People just like you are inspiring positive change

By Nikki Sanchez
Melissa Donich

Vancouver teacher Melissa Donich is encouraging local restaurants to eliminate plastic straws or replace them with reusable alternatives.

Vancouver teacher Melissa Donich is passionate about the outdoors and environmental protection. Her Drop the Straw project inspires restaurants to reduce single-use plastics and helped convince the City of Vancouver to ban plastic straws.

“In a world of more than seven billion people, each of us is a drop in the bucket.
But with enough drops, we can fill any bucket.” 
— David Suzuki

What inspired you to create Drop the Straw?

Growing up, I went to a Quebec summer camp where I learned about the outdoors. My connection to nature is what drives me protect it.

The waste from single-use plastics has always upset me. Straws, coffee cup lids, plastics forks and knives — few are recycled. They’re everywhere, from city parks to beaches and hiking trails.

Millions of single-use plastics are used every day in Canada without a second thought to their impact on the environment. For us they’re cheap and convenient. Our fragile ecosystems pay the true cost.

I decided to focus on plastic straws as they are ubiquitous, unnecessary and too small to recycle. They aren’t difficult to eliminate or replace with reusable alternatives, so I was able to show restaurant owners and managers how quickly and easily they can reduce their plastic waste. I went door-to-door explaining the cost benefits of letting go of plastic straws, their unnecessary use and the severity of the planet’s plastic pollution problem.

How did you get businesses to collaborate?

After work, I went door-to-door, district to district, collecting petition signatures from restaurant owners and managers across the city. Sometimes it was an immediate yes, with no questions asked. Other times a manager would sit down with me and discuss the benefits of going straw-free.

Several businesses I spoke with have been straw-free for years — Nomad, Oddfish and The Arbor. The Cascade Room has always been straw-free and offers reusable glass straws.

Owners who hadn’t thought much about it but sign right away motivate me to keep going. A few weeks after speaking with me, the owner of Winking Judge Pub emailed “we are ready to Drop the Straw!” After speaking with me, the manager of CRAFT Beer Market started training staff to stop automatically providing plastic straws, moving to an “on-request only” policy. So many people in the hospitality industry are excited to make a positive change they just hadn’t thought of before.

I never push my campaign on any business and always speak from the heart. I want to work together with local businesses towards a common goal.

Millions of single-use plastics are used every day in Canada without a second thought to their impact on the environment. For us they’re cheap and convenient. Our fragile ecosystems pay the true cost.

What can people do right now to help the planet?

Stop buying single-use items. Always carry a to-go mug, cloth bag (not synthetic), or utensils in your backpack, car or saddlebag. Treat these items like a pieces of clothing or necessities.

What’s encouraged you to keep going?

It’s hard to speak one-to-one with large corporations and I wondered if my campaign would work if I couldn’t reach businesses that use single-use items on a massive scale. But I was driven to do what was right and continue on without them. Every local business owner I spoke to and every signature on my petition inspired me to keep going and not stop until the job was done.

Friends and family gave me tremendous support. I started this campaign before I finished my program at SFU, on my own time and with the little money I could spare. I asked a friend to be my campaign partner, making it clear that we had no budget. More friends came together to support us. We found a designer for our logo, a photographer and a web designer. We ran a successful campaign with just a few pairs of hands and willpower.

My grade school students also inspired me. Kids are unencumbered by a lot of the concerns that cause adults to look the other way on environmental issues. They genuinely care about the world they live in and want it to be a better place for everyone, even if it means life might not be as simple or convenient. Seeing how excited they were by changes that would help protect the oceans and the mountains they look at every day in this city, and seeing their reactions as they livestreamed my speech to city council was heartwarming. Their future inspires me to keep pushing for change.

So many people in the hospitality industry are excited to make a positive change they just hadn’t thought of before. I never push my campaign on any business and always speak from the heart.

How can people start taking action in their communities?

It’s easy to tackle these issues! The key is understanding what angle to take and who to target.

People will throw single-use plastics in the garbage as long as businesses provide them and governments allows them to be sold.

When I launched this campaign, I spoke directly with the people making straws available. One bar or restaurant owner deciding to go straw-free means eliminating the plastic waste of hundreds of customers every day.

I reached out to Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver City Council, who have the say on what products are allowed in our city. I said I wanted to speak on behalf of people who signed my petition and that we needed to take immediate action. The city’s Zero Waste 2040 team, Mayor Robertson and several councillors and MLAs responded and incorporated a ban on plastic straws in their waste management policy.

What do you plan to tackle next?

City council included a ban on plastic straws in their Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy. I’ll keep working with local businesses to help them transition to being straw-free. I want the campaign to maintain momentum to ensure that the city follows through on the proposed ban, even after the coming municipal elections, and introduces measures to reduce other kinds of plastic waste. Drop the Straw will also work with local business owners to help them find ways to reduce their overall plastic waste.

One bar or restaurant owner deciding to go straw-free means eliminating the plastic waste of hundreds of customers every day.

Any recommended resources?

Lonely Whale supports campaigns to reduce plastic waste all over the world. They influenced Seattle and Malibu to ban plastic straws. Strawless Ocean encourages people to take action against plastic pollution, starting with the plastic straw. Oceanwise’s education branch researches the effects of plastic waste, microplastics and microfibres on marine ecosystems.

Plus, we’ll keep business owners and the general public up-to-date as our campaign evolves.

Nikki Sanchez

Nikki Sanchez

Nikki Sanchez is a Pipil/Maya and Irish/Scottish academic, media maker and environmental educator. After two years as David Suzuki’s Queen of Green, she partnered with Telus STORYHIVE on the first ever mentorship funding for emerging Indigenous filmmakers. She also helped create RISE, an eight-part VICELAND documentary series on global Indigenous resurgence, which debuted at Sundance in February 2017 and received global critical acclaim, including Best Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards.