When Leticia Kistamas arrived in Canada at 17-years-old, she was in awe of everything she could buy in a store.
Growing up in Hungary, shops there carried only the essentials and there was never the temptation of choice. Along with her younger sister, she was eager to live the “American life” she had often seen portrayed in movies and freely indulged.
“It was just so bright, there were so many things on the shelves and I was so overwhelmed. I was dancing because I was excited,” says Kistamas. “I thought that since we were living here, we now got to buy whatever we wanted to.”
It wasn’t until later when she was pregnant that she became more conscious of the world she was going to bring her first child into and was determined to make changes. She realized there was something wrong when she started to accumulate too many items and felt it wasn’t actually making her any happier.
As a registered nurse, she was also tapped into conversations about harsh chemicals hidden in products that could be transferred from mothers as they carried their unborn baby and started researching the topic.
Kistamas was surprised to learn that almost every product she used had synthetics in it and began to look for more natural replacements. She says everyone around her thought she was overreacting but she could not get over the shock that so many companies were selling harsh chemicals in the mainstream market.
After the birth of her daughter she was overtaken with motherly love, promising to do everything she could to provide a healthy future.
“When you start having kids, your vision changes. It’s not just you anymore, there are other people you’re now responsible for,” says Kistamas. “I start noticing all the things that we can make or switch to, like disposable diapers to avoid toxic chemicals or using natural laundry detergents instead… I think it helped being a nurse because researching was part of my degree so I streamed all the information to find out what was actually true.”
Living in Calgary then and by the time she had her two other children, natural products were gaining popularity and more information was publicly available. With the support of her husband, they began to transition their family to an alternate way of living.
With the knowledge came an appreciation for nature they couldn’t find in an urban setting so when they found out about Terrace — it was an easy decision to move to the rugged Northwest surrounded with its vastness of rich beauty.
But on their hikes along the promised pristine rivers, it was her kids that began to point how much garbage lined the banks. They started to collect all the trash, astonished with the amount that was senselessly accumulating and that nothing was being done about it.
“It was just so overwhelming, the damage that we do to the environment and I thought about how I’m such a tiny little thing in this big, big ocean,” she says.
“Terrace is such a beautiful paradise and raising kids here was a big dream for us… we would go for walks with the kids in the springtime when the snow would melt and there was so much garbage everywhere.”
She delved into research again and discovered how much waste was contaminating waterways across Canada and how problematic this was around the world. As a family of five, she grew aware of their eco-footprint and wanted to reduce the amount of plastic they acquired.
Kistamas began to think about her youth in Hungary and reflected on how people still managed to live a fulfilling life without all these extra, disposable products to clutter their homes. In her home country, people brought baskets to the store to carry out their groceries and bought their food fresh from farmers in town. Things were rarely wrapped in layers of pesky plastic and if she had lived like this before, surely it was possible to live like that again.
“I was thinking back to my roots, using that European knowledge and upbringing on how we can reduce our waste,” she says. “We had grown up recycling, thinking about what we can do to reduce and repurpose.”
Her family embraced the challenge and began to question every item in the house on how it can be reused or replaced with something more sustainable. They used mesh bags for groceries and beeswax to wrap their lunches but there was still garbage washing up on the shores nearby and Kistamas wanted local government to know this was a grave concern.
At the end of January 2018, Kistamas with her kids spoke to city council, showing how much trash her family had collected on their hikes. They also presented a long list of signatures in support of a single-use plastic ban to reduce the waste. They told her it wasn’t their responsibility and redirected her to the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine. Officials there agreed but also said it wasn’t in their jurisdiction.
Kistamas decided that if they weren’t going to do anything about it, then she was going to march door to door to every business in Terrace and convince people to be more eco-friendly. She says many were hesitant but a few, like Cafenara, were supportive of the cause so they worked together to find easy ways to transition away from plastic.
Soon enough, businesses began to contact her for guidance and Kistamas was invited to run workshops in schools to teach students about their environmental impact as she established a presence with Plastic Free Terrace. She says classrooms were so responsive to her presentations that she’d be contacted by parents, thanking her for encouraging their families to be more aware of their waste.
“I just try to educate people and it’s been amazing to do that… I feel like there’s a lot of advocacy going on and it’s finally being heard now,” she says. “With them saying that they have made such a big change in their lives, that keeps me going to know that I have made an impact.”
As climate change rallies took over headlines around the world this past year, Kistamas felt Terrace was ready for its own. Posting on Facebook, she encouraged the public to stand with her in front of city hall to push for change. She was impressed with how many people cared. She says that often she felt alone in the battle to make the world a better place and it was empowering to be surrounded by those who stood for the same values.
She says that she did receive negative comments about her cause but she learned quickly to just ignore it. She emphasizes her movement isn’t anti-LNG or battling industry, but just being more proactive on a personal level to keep nature clean.
“My dad back home was actually quite worried [when I held rallies] because in Hungary, most people end up in jail at some point,” says Kistamas with a laugh.
“I tell him it’s a bit different in Canada… I’m just trying to save the Earth.”
Following those events, more people began to ask Kistamas where they could get reusable and natural products. She began contacting local suppliers and buying in bulk but as demand grew, she decided to open up a small sales shop in her basement.
Last November, Kistamas officially launched the Terrace Refillery and has begun to establish connections with companies across the country to provide sustainable and green products. Her shop is only open on Saturdays when she’s at home as she says she’s busy working as a full-time nurse and mom.
For her, the shop isn’t to provide an extra income as she uses the money to buy more eco-friendly products that people ask about. When people come to her store, she asks them to bring their own jar or container.
Looking back, Kistamas says she’s glad that city council let her down because it encouraged her to make changes happen on her own.
“They almost did me a favor because it made the movement stronger,” she explains. “I was very frustrated at first… but then I just gathered some more strength and people who really supported me, they just told me to keep going.”
Her advocacy work with Plastic Free Terrace has sparked more conversations in the community and is becoming recognized in other parts of the Northwest. Residents from Prince Rupert and Kitimat have also been regularly visiting her shop.
She says her main goal isn’t to open a storefront in town as her refillery is intended to be an educational platform to share knowledge and resources. She hopes that with small changes, people in Terrace will embrace a more plastic-free lifestyle and help keep our world livable for generations to come.
“My dream would be for no plastic bags at the check-out… I want to see more water stations, more greenery and I just really want people to think about their actions,” says Kistamas. “We just can’t keep going like this.”