Vera was tired of seeing plastic everywhere. Now she leads her own plastic-free movement in Chicago.

Vera Dorzhinova explains why she joined the Chicago Sustainability Challenge and “The Last Plastic Straw” movement in one simple sentence: “I want to be useful, and I’m worried about the environment”. 

Vera moved to the U.S. 2.5 years ago along with her husband, who had found a job in Chicago. That’s when her obsession with reducing plastic waste started. In Russia she used to work as a software developer. Now in the U.S., her visa didn’t allow her to look for work so she spent a lot of time alone.

She looked for other ways to occupy herself and put her skills and passions to good use. She fully committed to going plastic-free. She started by learning everything she could about how she could reduce her waste:

I stopped buying bottled water and started to bring my own reusable bags and containers for vegetables and groceries. I started to use bamboo toothbrushes, shampoo bars and soaps instead of liquid ones in plastic bottles and switched to natural refillable cleaning products. I started to shop in local stores instead of online. I started composting by using a pick-up service that comes around twice a month to get the waste to a composting facility. I also decided to be a minimalist and to stop buying unnecessary clothes.

Anyone living in a foreign country knows how hard it can be to figure out simple things like how the garbage works, or to explain in another language that you want your coffee inside your reusable container. But Vera has stepped up to the challenge. “I wanted to be perfect from the first day”, she remembers, and now she’s really noticing the difference. She doesn’t produce a lot of garbage anymore – one big garbage bag in 3 months, that’s it.

“At first my husband wasn’t very happy. It took a while, but he got used to it. He supports me now. He also realized how much plastic was everywhere and now he also carries a small reusable bag, tumbler and utensils in his backpack.”  

Convincing her own husband was only the first step however. Vera wanted to share her learnings with a wider community.

“I understand that my individual efforts are not enough. I meet people who drink through plastic straws and from plastic cups all the time. So I started a Facebook group Ecofriendly Chicago a year ago.”

In the Facebook group, she shares her journey to sustainable and zero-waste living with a Russian-speaking community. And when she came across the “Chicago Sustainability Challenge” online she was ready to take the next step with her Ecofriendly Chicago movement. 

“I wanted to do something real instead of just sharing information online. First I looked into planting trees but I live downtown and I couldn’t find an opportunity. Then I decided on The Last Plastic Straw because I already know a lot about the problem. It seemed quite easy to me. Something that I can do. I have the time and there were lots of resources to help.”

The Last Plastic Straw is a movement that started in California in 2011. It’s about asking restaurants, bars, and cafés to only serve straws upon request or completely eliminate plastic straws and switch to naturally compostable or reusable options. To support them, they have materials like a table tent with customer information and a pledge that people can sign. Everyone can become an ambassador for the movement and spread the message.

Her Facebook group helped Vera to find people quickly to join her team.

“I got started with my team of four people. We walked into bars and restaurants and said that we were part the Last Plastic Straw movement, explaining the idea. We spoke to bartenders but often they’re not the ones who make decisions. Looking back, it was a bit too much, walking in with the four of us!” 

Now they’ve changed their strategy and people go on their own or in teams of two. Vera focuses on her own neighborhood and goes to new places twice a month to make an appointment, to leave some information and then she goes back to talk to the managers. Everything she has learned over the last years, and the resources provided by the founder of The Last Plastic Straw through ChangeX allow her to give some additional advice to café owners:

“Last week I talked to a manager and he told me that all places in Chicago order paper straws from one supplier, so they’ve run out. I showed them the hay straws. He liked them. They are made from wheat stems, a byproduct from wheat production, so there is no need to cut trees like with paper straws. I’ll meet him again, so perhaps he will order this kind of straw.” 

Language is still a challenge for Vera. She feels that maybe people turn her down sometimes because she is not so fluent in English.

“Sometimes they don’t understand me or I don’t understand them. Maybe sometimes people don’t take me as seriously as a fluent speaker.” 

But Vera just shrugs and moves on. Every place she can help to make a change is a win for her. 

“Our mission is to help restaurants and cafés to make the change as soon as possible. Many places already want to do it, they just don’t have enough time to research how and need a bit of help. We help them to find alternatives to their plastic straws, put the table signs up to inform customers and give them links to online stores. I want to inspire people that it’s possible to make a difference.”

While she has been trying to make a change in her neighborhood through The Last Plastic Straw, she has also noticed some changes in her own life:

“My life is much busier now. I didn’t have friends or colleagues here. Now I have a lot of communication and I’m very happy about it. I see a lot of people who want to help. And it’s also good practice for my English.”

She enjoys the work on this project much more than her previous job as a software developer and hopes that maybe through this experience she might be able to take on a bigger project at some point and even find a job in this area. 

Before that, she wants to keep growing the Last Plastic Straw movement in Chicago and to find more people like her, who are willing to spread the word in their own neighborhoods. She and her team are also planning a film screening of the movie Straws, as recommended in the Last Plastic Straw guide.

If you want to join Vera and her team, you can get in touch with Vera here:

Photo courtesy: Vera Dorzhinova

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