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Living a Life Without Plastic

an interview with Nina Carter Hitchen

The driving force behind “Plastic Free on MV,” Nina shares her thoughts on the Zero Waste way of living. She had many more specific tips and suggestions than space allowed; to learn more, find her on facebook, or contact our office!

When you made the move to a “life without plastic,” did you make all the changes quickly, or was it more of a gradual process?

It’s been gradual. In 2010, when I was pregnant with our twins, I decided to rid my kitchen of plastic. At the time I was concerned about its health effects, but unaware of the waste and pollution issues. Little by little, I replaced Ziploc bags and Saran wrap with reusable containers and beeswax wraps, then the plastic containers with Pyrex and glass jars. Over a couple of years I culled our kitchen tools in favor of wood, glass, and stainless steel or cast iron. 

In 2014 I learned about the Zero Waste movement – people who had “quit plastic”– and decided that this was what I wanted to do. I already used reusable shopping bags and water bottles, but quitting plastic entirely involved an initial investment in some additional reusables, like cotton produce bags, stainless steel straws, bamboo to-go utensils and glass storage jars. I was on a tight budget, but found a way. I sold things we no longer needed and put the cash toward reusables. As products ran out or wore out, I would replace them with the “un-plastic” alternative.

I looked at all the food I bought and considered alternatives. The easiest switch at the grocery store was realizing all the unpackaged items – produce, bulk bin items, anything from the salad bar or deli counter – can all be purchased in a reusable bag or your own container! For things that aren’t available unpackaged, I opt for glass or paper packaging over plastic. 

For the things that are only available packaged in plastic, I’ve mostly either learned to make it or live without it. I’ve learned to make tortillas, yogurt, hummus, and crackers, and other products like toothpaste, deodorant, and dish soap. A major “aha!” moment was realizing that making those things myself meant I knew exactly what was going into them - not the preservatives in packaged foods or harsh chemicals found in many body and cleaning products.

What plastic item did you think would be very difficult to do without, but instead you discovered a great solution?

There are so many examples! I took on the mindset that I had to focus on one change at a time to not get overwhelmed. And I’ve been persistent and determined, willing to try, and fail, and try again. When I first tried making tortillas, it was a massive undertaking and my family hated them! But now I’m a pro, my family loves the homemade tortillas and I can whip them up in no time.

Now, the flip side: What plastic item has turned out to be the most difficult to do without? 

There are lots of things we simply have learned to live without, but I don’t see it as difficult because it’s a choice to live in a way that is healthier, more beautiful, and better for the planet. With food, the degree of packaging directly correlates with processing and preservatives. So for a lot of things, like soda or chips, it’s probably not something we really want or need anyway. Then, there are the things I’m still working on: tofu, pasta, and chocolate chips, and laundry and dishwasher detergent are at the top on my list for finding plastic-free, or making myself. 

I have found the greatest challenge is the social aspect. What do you do when you’re at a dinner party where your friend only has plastic cutlery out? Is it rude to use the bamboo set I have in my bag? Or you’re out to dinner and you ask the waiter “no straw, please” . . . and then he turns and asks the rest of the table if they want straws. 

But I’ve also found there’s a space between massive consumption and “doing without.” Telling my kids they couldn’t have plastic toys didn’t work. I tried. My son asked for a Captain America action figure one Christmas. I couldn’t bear getting it for him. But then, he still wanted it the following Christmas. So I ordered it used on eBay, and requested no plastic shipping materials from the seller. The toy is plastic, but it was used so it wasn’t adding anything new to the waste stream. This was a great lesson for me – now, if there’s something I need that is plastic (like a raincoat), I buy it secondhand.

How did your collaboration with VCS on plastic waste reduction begin? 

VCS played a huge role in my journey to life without plastic. The timing of the plastic bag bylaw initiative coincided with my research into Zero Waste, learning for example about how recycling is not such a great solution, which rocked my world. I attended a bag ban info session, and that was the first time I learned about the terrific ills of plastic pollution. I remember my Mom telling me, way back, about places in California that had banned plastic bags, and the idea that Martha’s Vineyard could do this too was so exciting to me. When the Oak Bluffs Selectmen abruptly took the proposed bylaw off the warrant in 2016, I reached out to VCS as an OB resident and asked how I could help. I was invited to join the bag ban working group and wound up having the honor of presenting the bylaw, which we got on the warrant by a citizens’ petition, at the 2017 OB town meeting, where it passed (almost) unanimously.

What sorts of joint projects are VCS and Plastic Free MV working on now? 

We’re always working on new waste reduction programs: movie and discussion series, zero waste store tours, shopping classes, etc. We’d love to do a cooking class about how to make things you usually buy packed in plastic, crackers, tortillas, granola bars, yogurt, hummus, etc, and maybe a DIY class where people can learn to make cleaners, toothpaste, and more. We’re exploring different venues and how to broaden our audience. I’d love to find a way to better reach my peer groups – parents with young kids. This year I joined the OB School PTO and formed a “Going Green” committee. Our first project has been to replace the school’s plastic library bags with reusable canvas bags.

What do you think will be the bigger challenge for spreading the plastic-free message: convincing kids to slow down and not take part in the disposable convenience culture, or changing the habits of us older folks who are stuck in our ways?  

Actually I don’t think either of those groups are the biggest challenge. I think kids are receptive to new ideas, they just need exposure, and older folks remember life without plastic. It wasn’t all that long ago! Maybe this is just because they’re my peers, but I think the biggest challenge is convincing parents with young kids, who are busy and overwhelmed with work and family, that its possible to reduce their plastic footprint. I see them as a powerful group because they can effect the biggest change, both by themselves – young families use so much plastic, think diapers and juice boxes and Ziploc bags of snacks – and by instilling better environmental values in their children.

At VCS, one point we often make is how long disposable plastics remain in the environment – 1000 years of degradation in exchange for a one-time use is a jarring wakeup call. But that’s also kind of bleak, right? How do you create a message around positive change to inspire others? For that matter, how do you keep positive yourself?

It is bleak. So many environmental issues feel too abstract, unattainable. Real solutions seem out of reach, and meager improvements are invisible. This is exactly what I find so powerful about life without plastic – simple everyday choices we make have an impact, and the change is visible – in the contents of our trashcan or recycling bin. Plus, using less plastic leads to better health and more beauty (un-plastic is always prettier),and the effects are exponential – people see your choices and are inspired to make changes in their own lives.

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