IMPACT

Is It Really Possible To Go 'Plastic Free'? This Town Is Showing The World How.

A coastal town in England achieved "plastic free" accreditation in 2017, since then over 100 other communities have done the same.

PENZANCE, ENGLAND – As waves crash against the art deco wall of Jubilee Pool in the one of the country’s most westerly coastal towns, Sam Dean is talking about single-use plastics. Specifically, how to wean people off them. 

Dean is the food and beverage manager of the Jubilee Pool Café, which calls itself a ”single use plastic free venue.” Customers will find no plastic straws, cups or cutlery here. Instead there are wooden stirrers, cornstarch straws, and disposable coffee cups made out of a biodegradable material. The café also sells glass to-go mugs.

“There’s a shame associated with individually wrapped things, and by moving the focus towards reusables we’re enhancing the customer experience whilst improving the quality and provenance of products on offer,” said Dean.

But much more remains to be done, he says. He’s considering making customers pay more for disposable coffee cups to further encourage them to ditch single use plastic. 

Sam Dean at the Jubilee Café in Penzance with some of the reusable glass coffee cups he sells.
Sam Dean at the Jubilee Café in Penzance with some of the reusable glass coffee cups he sells.

On nearby Chapel Street ― where 18th century buildings house gift shops, antique stores and boutique guesthouses ― is the natural skincare store Pure Nuff Stuff. Inside, shelves are stocked with bamboo toothbrushes, plastic-free dental floss, solid shampoo and moisturizer bars.

Emily Kavanaugh, the store’s owner, said she has noticed dramatic changes in people’s buying habits in the town over the last year or two. “We’re now making four times as much soap compared to last year as more people switch from bottled shower gel, and most online customers jump at the chance to opt for plastic-free packaging,” she said. 

Pure Nuff Stuff and the Jubilee Pool Café are just two of the businesses that are involved in a huge community effort — involving local residents, schools and government ― to stamp out single-use plastics in Penzance.

In 2017, this town of 21,000 people became the first community in the U.K. to be awarded “Plastic Free” status by the conservation nonprofit Surfers Against Sewage as part of its Plastic Free Communities initiative.

Those arriving at the picturesque Cornish harbor town by road are greeted by a black sign with “Welcome to Plastic Free PZ, Reduce, Refill, Rethink” spelled out in orange LED lights. 

“There’s so much collaboration on every level here in Penzance,” said Kavanaugh. “It’s a small town so we all talk to each other, share ideas and resources and we have a mind to be useful to each other. It’s an exciting time.”

Emily Kavanaugh, owner of Pure Nuff Stuff in Penzance. 
Emily Kavanaugh, owner of Pure Nuff Stuff in Penzance. 

The plastics crisis is increasingly visible everywhere, but especially in coastal towns like Penzance. In 2016, the world produced over 320 million tons of plastic, a figure set to double by 2034, according to Surfers Against Sewage, which was founded by individuals who live in the region. Approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution reach our oceans daily, and many of these wash up on beaches. During just one U.K.-wide weekend beach clean in 2019, volunteers collected nearly 12 tons of litter, an average of 558 items for every 100 meters of beach cleaned.

The inundation of plastic waste is the reason Surfers Against Sewage decided to set up the Plastics Free Communities campaign, which targets single-use plastic items such as straws, bags, cups and bottles. It’s a grassroots campaign, with the aim of engaging whole communities in a commitment to take serious steps to reduce plastics.

To qualify for accreditation, communities need to follow a five-point action plan, including securing local government support; working with businesses to reduce their single-use plastics; teaming up with schools and community organizations; holding plastic-free events, like rallies or mass “unwraps” (where people leave the plastic packaging from their groceries at the supermarket checkout); and setting up a diverse local steering group on plastics. 

In Penzance, the effort to become plastic free was led by Rachel Yates, a former journalist who is now the Plastic Free Communities project officer.

An aerial view of Penzance, Cornwall.
An aerial view of Penzance, Cornwall.

Shocked by how much plastic pollution she found during the beach cleanups she organized between 2014 and 2017, Yates felt compelled to try to shift the throwaway mindset of her hometown.

Having grown up in Cornwall, Yates had supported Surfers Against Sewage’s work since the organization, which mixes grassroots campaigns with lobbying, started in 1990. As soon as the nonprofit launched Plastic Free Communities, she signed up.

“I liked the focus on tackling plastic pollution at the source and also the culture change around single use,” said Yates. “I could see how it could have wider environmental and community benefits in Penzance. ... It just felt a natural next step from organizing and doing beach cleans in the area.” 

Rachel Yates spearheaded the campaign to get Penzance "plastic free" accreditation. 
Rachel Yates spearheaded the campaign to get Penzance "plastic free" accreditation. 

As part of the Surfers Against Sewage checklist for accreditation, she needed to persuade at least 12 businesses out of the 800 in Penzance to pledge to eliminate the use of three types of single-use plastics ― bags, straws, coffee cups, packaging ― and replace them with more eco-friendly alternatives like paper straws, cloth bags and reusable cups. 

She achieved this within six months and momentum has built steadily since. Today, more than 125 businesses in town are signed up, including cafés, hotels, guesthouses and retailers that encourage customers to bring their own containers for milk, meat, groceries, dried goods and cleaning products. “We’ve put ourselves on the map as a town that cares,” said Yates. 

Becoming a Plastic Free Community has had a big impact on Penzance, said Jon Matthews, chair of the Penzance & District Tourism Association, raising awareness and inspiring community leaders and businesses to take the first steps towards positive change.

Matthews hopes this new environmentally conscious identity could help drive economic regeneration in Penzance, which is home to one of the most deprived housing projects in the country. “It makes good business sense to embrace the change,” he added.

Jon Matthews of the Penzance & District Tourism Association, with the town's seawater swimming pool behind him.
Jon Matthews of the Penzance & District Tourism Association, with the town's seawater swimming pool behind him.

Not everyone is convinced that progress is being made quickly enough. Bruce Rennie, chef and owner of The Shore, a small seafood restaurant at the top of the bustling town center, filters tap water instead of buying bottled mineral water, uses a SodaStrem instead of ordering sparkling water in plastic bottles, and buys milk in reusable plastic buckets from his local dairy. He already meets the requirements to gain plastic free status — he’s just waiting for the official certificate, but he thinks businesses need to do more.

“Plastic Free Communities is a great way for businesses to have an impact,” said Rennie, “but removing single-use plastic is a basic first step and my concern is that an accreditation is good but, once achieved, the drive isn’t as high to push further.”

He thinks the goal should be much broader, and include minimizing energy consumption and other waste. At his restaurant, Rennie minimizes food waste by having a set menu and only cooking for pre-booked guests; only buying local, seasonal ingredients; closely monitoring energy usage; and returning unwanted plastic packaging to suppliers — putting the onus on them to dispose of it. 

“I’d like to see more pressure on large distributors to remove plastic packaging and perhaps government incentives to switch to reusable packaging,” he said.

Bruce Rennie, owner of The Shore restaurant in Penzance, wishes the town would go further with its environmental campaigns.
Bruce Rennie, owner of The Shore restaurant in Penzance, wishes the town would go further with its environmental campaigns.

Penzance is not in any sense actually free of plastics yet. A mix of discount stores, fast food outlets and chain retailers in the town have not been easy to persuade to go plastic free, not least because many are answerable to a head office elsewhere and lack autonomy to make that change. Plastic cutlery and non-recyclable food containers are still supplied by some of the takeaway restaurants, plastic bags are available at supermarket checkouts (though in the U.K., customers must pay 5 pence per bag), and fridges full of single-use plastic drink bottles are still found along the high street. 

But Yates said this shouldn’t detract from the effort underway. “Accreditation enables a community to put the foundations in place to start tackling single-use plastic,” she said.

The ultimate aim is to eliminate single-use plastic altogether, and fundamentally transform our throwaway culture. “This is about having a long-term goal and commitment,” said Surfers Against Sewage chief executive Hugo Tagholm. “‘Slightly less plastic communities’ wouldn’t be aspirational. Ultimately, accreditation is the start of this journey.” 

Of course, truly eliminating plastic waste will require an effort that goes well beyond communities and reaches the corporations that are the world’s top plastic polluters. Break Free From Plastic, a global movement of 1,800 environmental organizations working to reduce plastic pollution, compiles an annual list of the worst polluters, which in 2019 was topped by companies including Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo.

Changing the business models of these companies will require governments to disincentivize the production of single-use plastics and to put responsibility for plastic trash on companies — not consumers. But Surfers Against Sewage, which also lobbies for governmental change, believes Plastic Free Towns are an important way of creating grassroots pressure for these changes. As Lyndsey Dodds, head of marine policy at the World Wildlife Foundation, said in a Guardian article, “One town isn’t going to change the world, but it’s the groundswell that’s important.”

To date, 104 communities in the U.K. have been awarded Plastic Free Community status, including Caerphilly in Wales and Canary Wharf in London. More than 500 others are seeking the accreditation. 

Within the international environmental community, the Plastic Free Communities model has been recognized as a leading example of how to activate communities, according to Emily Penn, an ocean advocate who co-founded the all-female eXXpedition series of sailing voyages, which explore the impact of plastic pollution in oceans around the globe.

“Surfers Against Sewage have been creating a lot of resources and really empowering people to make positive change in their local towns,” said Penn. “It’s fantastic and really tangible because there are so many people now who want to do something but don’t always know where to start.”

Canada, France, Germany, China and Australia have shown interest in expanding the Plastic Free Communities initiative globally, according to Surfers Against Sewage, and that’s something Tagholm is considering.

“We are currently focusing on increasing the reach and impact of the Plastic Free Communities movement in the U.K. but we are in the very early stages of investigating the feasibility of a global model for the movement,” he said. “We want to get the framework right and the right systems and model in place to ensure success before we do so.”

Matt Franklin, the European communications officer for Break Free From Plastic, said the program shows how to activate communities and could work well with other ongoing initiatives in Europe.

“Plastic Free Communities is a really valuable approach within the context of a broader strategy,” said Franklin, who believes this community-led initiative complements the Zero Waste Cities movement, a program already in operation in Europe. The initiative, run by the Brussels-based NGO Zero Waste Europe, is primarily aimed at eliminating waste and diverting resources from landfills in more than 400 municipalities. The kind of strategies it implements include “pay as you throw,” which charges households based on the amount of waste they produce, and “deposit return schemes,” where consumers pay small deposits for bottled drinks that they get back after returning empty containers. 

By taking a stand, people are bound together by this common identity, and they’ll fight for that no matter where they live.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., some experts believe a growing awareness of the plastics crisis could provide fertile ground for plastic-free communities to take root.

California-based Shilpi Chhotray, senior communications officer for Break Free From Plastic, told HuffPost that “the heart and soul of plastic pollution work in the U.S. is grassroots, and action is happening across the board at a town and city level.”

Chhotray praised the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program, spearheaded by Surfrider Foundation, a U.S.-based grassroots environmental organization that accredits restaurants that are working to eliminate single-use plastics from their supply chains. So far, 621 restaurants have replaced Styrofoam and single-use plastic with reusables.  

Lonely Whale, an ocean advocacy foundation, has implemented similar programs. Its month-long Strawless In Seattle campaign in September 2017 converted more than 100 high-profile institutions, from the airport to the aquarium and baseball stadium, to switch from plastic to paper straws, removing 2.3 million plastic straws from the city. Shortly after, in 2018, Seattle became the first U.S. city to implement a city-wide ban on plastic straws and plastic utensils in bars and restaurants.

“It’s one thing to personally decide against using straws — it’s another thing altogether for a whole business or city to decide to go plastic-straw free,” said Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale. 

“We understand the importance of letting policymakers know that their constituency is already in favor of policy change,” continued Ives, “so we focus on cheerleading and engaging people in a fun, non-shaming way so they’re open to conversations about other single-use plastic items.”

For Ives, that’s also the beauty of the U.K.’s plastic free communities. “Surfers Against Sewage has renormalized what communities are willing to stand for. By taking a stand, people are bound together by this common identity.”

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