Michelle Hall hosts her monthly public meet-ups at the local brewery in Tofino, British Columbia. The boozy venue radiates a new-age vibe, with beer and kombucha on tap and more bicycles stacked outside than cars.
It is there that greening ambitions are shared and the gauntlet is thrown down on the issue of ocean pollution. And what better way to recruit for a beach cleanup than over handcrafted beer?
“Surfrider and environmental work has become hot on people’s lips. People are actually interested in eliminating this disposable lifestyle. They want to do something,” says Hall, who took leadership of the Surfrider Foundation Pacific Rim Chapter in September 2015, an organization dedicated to the protection of the world’s oceans.
The “disposable lifestyle” she refers to involves reducing the amount of single-use plastics that enter our day-to-day. Items like bottled water, plastic grocery store bags, coffee cup lids, plastic cutlery and straws are all on Surfrider’s laundry list of plastics one can rise above.
“You don’t really need to live by the ocean to respect water and respect the issues that are affecting our water stream and our ocean… Behind all of it is our own personal consumption and lifestyle habits and choices,” says Hall.
Her own environmental conscience is so elevated that she hesitates to purchase a bag of chips because of the foil bag they come packaged in.
Around Earth Day of 2016, Surfrider Pacific Rim initiated a widely successful “Straws Suck” campaign that drew national media attention. The goal of the campaign was to eliminate single-use plastic straws from Tofino restaurants.
“The idea behind Straws Suck not only came from that they are a worthless object made out of fossil fuel, but I wanted to generate a conversation. From a business point of view, I knew that straws would be really easy. I knew that there were only 42 businesses in Tofino that actually carried straws,” says the commerce grad from England.
Nowadays, anyone visiting Canada’s surf capital would be hard-pressed to order a drink that comes garnished with a plastic straw—although a biodegradable alternative is usually available upon request.
Surfrider Pacific Rim
At the 2017 Tofino Business Excellence Awards Gala in April, the Surfrider executive crew picked up the award for non-profit of the year. Hall was quick to thank the community for their support and the environmental groups that led the way.
“We just stand on the shoulders of those before us all of the time,” she says, adding that fostering an inclusive, fun atmosphere was key to posting a banner year.
“Whether you’re a grom [young surfer], whether you’re a book nerd, whether you’re an old lady, young lady… It’s just we’ve got something for everybody and I think that’s what’s really important. We’ve stayed apolitical.”
Starfish trophy and savvy campaigns aside, Hall’s proudest accomplishment to date is making headway with local youngsters through a school program called Youth Environmental Stewardship (Y.E.S).
Jason Sam, Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations Education Worker, reached out to Surfrider after reading about the Straws Suck campaign in the local newspaper.
“I sent an email that said I was running a sustainability class at the elementary school and we need to include this group. It sounded like they were doing some awesome things. Ever since then it’s been an amazing partnership that’s formed,” says Sam, who has since taken on the role of Surfrider Youth Coordinator.
The Y.E.S. program educates youth about sustainability and how to be guardians of the environment. Students clean beaches on traditional First Nations land, keep statistics on the debris they find, and then turn the trash into works of marine debris art.
Surfrider plans on ballooning the program to include every grade eight class on the Pacific Rim. The hope is to get as many kids involved as possible, with the lofty goal of eventually getting the BC Minister of Education’s toes in the sand too.
Hall says she loves taking small projects and making them big. Sam encapsulates her drive in a story.
“I was out cleaning a beach with her the other day at a remote location,” he recalls. “I intended to be the hardest worker that day and that was my goal of the morning, but no way I could do that because Michelle Hall is always the hardest worker. She was dragging this big giant bag of marine debris all by herself. We offered her help but she said ‘no’… And she just kept going and going.”
Spending time in or on the ocean is how she replenishes.
“Create memories and experiences rather than give people stuff,” says Hall. “There is too much stuff, not enough experiences.”