Rochelle Byrne talks environmental stewardship, her journey paddleboarding 430km across Lake Ontario, and how the smallest lifestyle change can make a difference.
Tell us about yourself. The real story! (be as raw and open as you feel comfortable).
RB: I wasn’t always an environmentalist. When I was in high school I wanted to be a fashion designer. It wasn’t until after I went to college for fashion and worked in the fashion industry for a while that I realized it wasn’t for me. That’s when I found my true calling - nature - even though I didn’t know that much about it, just that I liked it. I went back to school to study ecosystem management which was the beginning of a journey that was much deeper than I could have ever expected. There’s something very empowering about knowing the names of the trees in the backyard and understanding how nature’s cycles work. I went from knowing the difference between a Christmas tree and a “normal” tree to be able to identify 200 species here in Ontario. It opened my eyes to understanding the complexity and diversity all around us. I’ve always been an adventurer, I like challenges, and I can be stubborn so while starting a nonprofit wasn’t what I originally had in mind when it comes to life goals, it turned out to be a really good fit for me. There have been so many ups and downs along the way. The learning experiences, the people I’ve met, and the overall impact I’ve made is far beyond my initial expectations. I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point. I’m a completely different person than I was in my fashion days, and I am so grateful that I took the fork in the road that led me here.
What are your pronouns?
Tell us about A Greener Future and Love Your Lakes.
RB: A Greener Future is a nonprofit I started in 2014 with the goal of organizing more community litter cleanups. I realized that there were lots of people who wanted to attend litter cleanups, but not many who wanted to organize and host them. I was up for the challenge. Little did I know that A Greener Future would turn into much more than just a series of litter cleanups. Through the data collected during cleanups, I was able to gain a better understanding of the problems we were facing and turn that into programs that incorporated solutions. Love Your Lakes started as 100 cleanups along the shores of Lake Ontario in 2016, but now as we move into 2022 the program is expanding to all Lakes across Ontario. Lakes and rivers are like the blood in our veins. Water is vital to our existence. We focus on cleaning up around lakes for an of couple reasons:
- That’s where waste accumulates, every time it rains waste gets washed downstream. This makes it easier and impactful to round it all up. But if we could prevent waste from getting into the environment in the first place, that would be best.
- Pollution in our water sources is the same as having toxic waste in our bodies. That is our drinking water after all. What gets dumped in the Lake impacts human health.
Cleaning up and protecting our water bodies creates healthy homes for wildlife, fosters pride in our communities, provides more recreation opportunities, boosts the economy, protects human health, and much more. Something as simple as picking up a few pieces of litter does make a difference, and it’s just the first step in becoming a steward of the environment. Our Love Your Lakes program brings volunteers together to learn, inspire, and make a collective impact that will help protect our waters for generations to come.
Was there a specific moment or experience that changed the way you see our world, or more specifically, your role within the interconnected ecosystem we call home?
RB: I have had several epiphanies while picking up litter. The first one was when I picked up a Dunkaroos package that had been gnawed on by a squirrel (for those of you that don’t know Dunkaroos, they're cookies and icing that come in a plastic package made for school lunches). It took me back to my elementary school days and made me wonder how much of MY garbage was out in the world. Since plastic never goes away I expect it’s a lot and this was the moment I declared to myself that I would reduce my waste as much as possible. Second, I came across a dead turtle, a dead bird, and a dead fish all in the same general area. I instantly wondered whether the litter I was picking up had impacted any of these precious souls. This was back when I first started A Greener Future and it made me realize that I was going to need a lot of help if I was to make a significant impact on the litter in the Lakes, I couldn’t do it alone. The third epiphany happened while I was standup paddleboarding across Lake Ontario in 2020. By this point, I had completed thousands of litter cleanups on the shore, so I thought I knew the extent of the problem quite well. While paddling I saw the entire Lake from a different perspective and at times I didn’t recognize it at all. Waste on the bottom of the Lake, algae blooms, sewage slicks, dead animals, smelly areas, slimy brown goo on top of the water. I was shocked. The pollution problem was worse than I thought, but this made me want to do more to fix it.
What keeps you motivated to act?
RB: People, specifically the volunteers and donors, who believe in the work A Greener Future is doing. There is nothing better than seeing people come together to solve a problem. I love meeting people who are just as passionate and curious about nature as I am. When we do a cleanup, it’s more than just picking up litter. It’s having great conversations, learning new things, and building a community of people who can work together to make life on earth better. More helping hands means we get more work done, and there’s room in the environmental community for everyone, even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist. In fact, we need people from all different backgrounds to help solve complex issues. We won’t get very far if everyone working on the problem has the same knowledge and skill set.
Where do you see the most promising signs of progress?
RB: Awareness. To fix a problem you have to know it exists. It’s very easy to go down to the Lake and see birds paddling around, waves lapping at the shore, a beautiful sunset over the water, and completely miss the pollution problem. We walk by litter every day and don’t “see” it because we’re used to it being there. More people are becoming aware and interested in environmental issues, which is great because it means there will be more support for environmental action.
Your Shoreline documentary blew us away. What was one thing that you learned from the experience that you didn't know before?
RB: I started with the goal of raising awareness about plastic pollution in the Lake, but I left the experience with a more diverse community of supporters than I expected. I thought it would be mainly environmentalists cheering me on as I paddled 430 km along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, but I was met by paddlers, surfers, swimmers, boaters, and so many others that love the Lake for many different reasons. For me, protecting the Lake means preserving the ecology and protecting the species that live in the Lake, but to others, it means keeping their favorite place to swim free of pollutants, or ensuring there are still fish to catch. No matter what the reason is for protecting the Lake, we’re all in this together and we all need to do our part.
What advice would you give to people who may feel powerless or overwhelmed regarding the plastic and water pollution issue?
RB: We can fix it. We made this mess and we can turn it around. The most important step is to be aware of the problem. Then do one thing at a time to make a difference. Every action counts, no matter how small. Keep learning.
Even the smallest lifestyle change can make a difference. What are a few that people can start today?
RB: Keep Learning: The more we know the more we can do to solve problems. Watch a documentary, attend a conference or webinar, do internet research, meet new people and have great conversations. Once you know about a problem and how you can help its harder to turn a blind eye.
Take Part: It’s all the little things that add up. Sign up for local litter cleanups, go for a nature walk, sign a petition, bring your reusable bag, and be a conscious consumer. The next time you make a purchase see if there is a sustainable, or local option. Do you even need that item or is it going to end up as waste later?
Support: Make a donation to an environmental cause or donate your time and skills as a volunteer. This is so important. We need to make sure that the environment is a constant priority. What do we have if we don’t have a safe and healthy environment to live in?
What podcasts, albums, exhibitions or books are currently inspiring you?
RB: I mainly listen to podcasts related to the nonprofit world, but when it comes to current events I listen to CBC’s Front Burner and for fun and interesting stories I Iove the Unsalted Great Lakes podcast.
I love to read and also listen to audiobooks. I am trying to learn French so a lot of my spare time is spent listening and studying the language. A few of my favourite reads:
Braiding Sweetgrass - Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Uninhabitable Earth - David Wallace-Wells
The Wave - Susan Casey
Fierce Conversations - Susan Scott
I recently visited the Plastic Heart exhibit at the University of Toronto and it was so inspiring. It was the first time I’ve been to an exhibit since before the pandemic and I hadn’t realized how much I missed that type of experience. I’ll be visiting the new Great Whales exhibit at the ROM next month with my family and I cannot wait!
What’s your favourite neighbourhood in Toronto?
RB: I love Toronto Island! It always feels like a big adventure taking the ferry across to the Island. There’s lots to see and do, and the view of the City is amazing.
What is Toronto’s best kept secret?
RB: Tommy Thompson Park! Wilderness in the heart of the City.
What is Ontario’s best kept secret?
RB: All the amazing farm stands in rural areas. We have so much local produce all over the province during the harvest seasons.
Where do you feel the most at home?
RB: Anywhere near water. I grew up in a small town surrounded by water and it really stuck with me. There’s something so soothing about being near the water. However, I don’t really like being IN the water.
What are you the most excited about in life, right now?
RB: We’re coming to the end of our litter cleanup season as we approach winter which means it’s time to start planning for 2022! This past year has been remarkable. Our volunteers picked up over 1 million pieces of litter even though pandemic restrictions put a strain on our programs. We learned a lot and had to change things on the fly, but we made it through stronger than ever. I am so excited to see how we finish off 2021 and to take our impact to new heights in 2022. I’m also super excited about sweater weather. There’s nothing I love more than cuddling up on the couch with a hot tea and a good book.
How can people get involved with A Greener Future?
RB: Join our community on social media, visit our website, subscribe to our monthly newsletter, become a volunteer or a donor. Whether you want to start off slow or dive in headfirst we’re here to help you on your journey to do your part for the environment.
You mentioned environmental stewardship in one of our early conversations and it stuck with us. This idea is about collaboration and inspiring others to do the same. It’s not about protest, not about exclusivity, bringing people together to tackle something that is bigger than us. Any last words to this point?
RB: We’re all just humans and we all have something to bring to the table. When I think back to when I started A Greener Future my initial goal was to pick up 1 million pieces of litter. Even with the help of volunteers, it took four years to reach that goal. But now in 2021, with a lot more support from the communities we work in, we picked up over a million pieces of litter in less than a year. We did that together and no one had to break their back to get it done. We all did our part and it made a big difference.