PEI

Reducing single-use plastic, one Instagram post at a time

Even a dedicated environmentalist like Jesse Hitchcock admits she's fallen victim to the charms of single-use plastics, like straws and take-out coffee lids.

'This stuff is making its way into our lives for no real reason'

Jesse Hitchcock totes her reusable cutlery and cup with her just about everywhere. (Submitted by Jesse Hitchcock)

Sunday may be Earth Day, but the entire month of April has been Earth month for Charlottetown's Jesse Hitchcock. Her daily Instagram posts have shown all the disposable plastics she's used. 

Hitchcock, 28, is a professional living and working in Charlottetown. She is working toward a master's degree in sustainability and previously chaired Fusion Charlottetown's sustainability committee.

"I do make a concerted effort to minimize them, but I just found myself in a few situations where they snuck their way in," Hitchcock said.

I don't know that people are necessarily considering the full scope of what the issue is when we're just quickly grabbing a straw with our smoothies.— Jesse Hitchcock

"I wanted to document that over the month to draw attention to how much of this stuff is making its way into our lives for no real reason."

While P.E.I. does have a comprehensive trash sorting and recycling program, plenty of plastics are simply not recyclable or don't fit in the program's parameters  — for instance it accepts only plastics numbered one through five, not six or seven. 

'Just not typical'

What tops Hitchcock's diary of shame?

Plastic straws.

"Often I found people were putting straws in your glass before you have a chance to intervene, or you might not think about intervening," Hitchcock said. 

Hitchcock is trying to cut down on using plastic straws and lauds local businesses that have made a switch. (Jesse Hitchcock/Instagram)

"Little things like packaging on products that could be needless — I got a box of pastries and the front of the box was a plastic window." 

Retailers often put purchases in bags before customers can refuse one, she notes. "They'll kind of look at you funny, 'Are you sure?'" she said. "I think it's just not typical." 

Reusable cutlery and mug

Hitchcock carries a set of reusable bamboo cutlery she scored in a giveaway from the City of Charlottetown, but she sometimes forgets them at home and is forced into using disposable plastic cutlery. A few restaurants offer compostable cutlery, cups and straws — Hitchcock would like to see more of this. 

Expect to pay about $15 for a set of lightweight bamboo portable flatware in a case. (Jesse Hitchcock/Instagram)

She has even brought her own containers to restaurants for takeout and leftovers, and "really loves to see restaurants that are choosing a different type of material for their takeout containers." 

Some local establishments offer wax-lined compostable paper containers or recyclable plastic containers, and Hitchcock said she will choose them over restaurants that offer styrofoam. 

"Especially this month ... just thinking more about where I'm going and what I'm going to get when I go there," she said. For instance one day last week she forgot her reusable cup but found herself craving a smoothie.

"I really wanted it, but I was like, I can't do it! Not this month" she laughed. (She didn't get one.) "If it was life or death I would obviously get it — it's just being more aware of it. Is this a need?"

If her need for takeout coffee was "dire" and she didn't have her cup, Hitchcock said she got it in a paper cup without a disposable lid. 

Cost of consumption

"Sometimes I think with these single-use items we just don't consider them at all, and I think we need to start being aware of what exactly is going into all the products we consume," Hitchcock said.  

Hitchcock has been posting daily about her plastic consumption in an effort to keep herself accountable. (Jesse Hitchcock/Instagram)

Plastic is created using fossil fuels, she said, "so there is a cost associated with producing that based on the consumption of resources and also then the greenhouse gases and the climate change implications," she said. 

Consumers should consider the afterlife of plastics that are recyclable — not everything ends up where it should, and plastics can break down and be ingested by marine life. Hitchcock is concerned about the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a patch of plastic garbage about the size of Quebec floating in the North Pacific.

"Marine wildlife entanglement and consuming those microplastics — I don't know that people are necessarily considering the full scope of what the issue is when we're just quickly grabbing a straw with our smoothies," she said. 

Hitchcock does carry a reusable straw, but has taken to simply drinking without any straws. The switch by some Charlottetown restaurants to paper straws pleases her.

"I think there's still work to do," she said. "Just conscious consumerism in general is starting to emerge ... but I don't know that people know the full extent of what the issue is with single plastics." 

"I think there's a bit of the mentality of 'Well it's just one straw' or 'I'm just one person,'" she said. 

The power of a post

Hitchcock has about 1,200 Instagram followers, and has received positive feedback on her plastic-use diary posts. 

'More than a third of our plastic consumption is for stuff we just use once and never think of again," Hitchcock posts. (Jesse Hitchcock/Instagram)

"People are sending in their suggestions for how they avoid different scenarios," she said, asking her where she got her cutlery and mug, and sharing businesses that make an effort to reduce plastic waste. 

One company she mentioned in a post — she received a package in the mail wrapped in bubble plastic — responded to her, saying they hope to be plastic-free by the end of the year. 

Hitchcock also encouraged shoppers in Charlottetown to seek out businesses that display a Certified Sustainable Business logo  — they "already think about this stuff," she said. Those businesses do things like pledge to source local whenever possible, properly sort their waste, eliminate non-recyclable plastic containers, conserve water and more.  

Where consumers do have a responsibility to buy and live responsibly, she'd like to see businesses and governments step in to reduce plastic use through efforts such as banning plastic bags, charging for takeout cups, and developing natural alternatives to plastics from things such as rice and mushrooms. 

Although she plans to stop posting daily about plastics at the end of April, Hitchcock said she's learned how easy it is to consume disposable plastics into your life, and hopes she's sparked the conversation among others. 

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca