The town that turned its back on plastic (and how you can go plastic free too)

They call them “mermaid’s tears” in Penzance: the small plastic pellets that line the beach at low tide along with a seemingly endless flotsam of plastic bottles and bags snarled up on the sea shore.

As she picks up the lids of Christmas chocolate boxes that have materialised overnight like Frisbees on the Cornish town’s main beach, Rachel Yates recalls the other more exotic forms of detritus she encounters on the shingle: platoons of toy soldiers, a severed Halloween finger and the remnants of 4.8m Lego pieces dumped off the coast of Land’s End by the container ship Tokio Express during a storm in 1997 which still get washed up today.

“It is just this excessive consumption and so much of it is stuff we don’t even need to buy in the first place,” she says.

 Last year, the 43-year-old mother of two who was born in Penzance and works for local radio station Pirate FM, decided she had seen enough. It may sound far-fetched to some, but Yates embarked on a proposal to make the town the first “plastic free community” in Britain.

Her campaign has touched a nerve, and provoked a remarkable response. In December, Penzance was officially granted the status after the Town Council, local schools, Chamber of Commerce and dozens of businesses put their weight behind the plans.

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Fighting plastic pollution is one of the defining challenges of our times. In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tonnes of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced more than 320 million tons of plastic.


A fish swimming in polluted seas Credit: BBC

Every single day, approximately eight million pieces wash into the world’s oceans, where they choke marine life. Around Britain’s coastline, 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach.

Plastic bottles are a particularly notable offender with on average 150 found per mile of beach. So too are plastic lined takeaway coffee cups, of which a staggering 2.5bn are thrown away every year. On Friday, Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee suggested a “latte levy” of 25p on every cup and a total ban altogether by 2023 unless recycling improves.

Slowly, it feels the tide is beginning to turn. Last month the UK’s Environment Secretary Michael Gove described himself as “haunted” by scenes of plastic pollution in Blue Planet 2 and stressed the need for urgent action. Come 2020, France will be the first country in the world to ban all plastic cups, plates and utensils.


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This week, too, China has announced it will take no more of Britain’s plastic after being inundated with 2.7m tonnes of it since 2012, and many are resolving to reduce their usage this year after producing an estimated 100,000 tonnes of unrecycled plastic packaging over Christmas alone – making the isolated Cornish outpost of Penzance an unlikely beacon in the war against waste.

To win its coveted status, awarded by the campaign group Surfers against Sewage (established in 1990 to clean up the water around Britain’s beaches), Penzance Town Council passed a motion pledging its support to all plastic-free initiatives in the town. A steering group has also been established, and regular beach cleans organised where 30 bin bags are filled with rubbish in a single morning.

Churches, local Brownies groups, the Women’s Institute and six schools have all pledged to reduce their plastic use.

Initially, 13 out of some 400 businesses in the town announced they would be removing single use plastics from their premises. At the end of the month, Rachel Yates is organising a plastic-free clinic to persuade others to get involved. “We’re up to almost 30 businesses now,” she says. “And we don’t intend to stop.”


Business owners and co chairs of Penzance Chamber of Commerce Emily Kavanaugh and Sarah Shaw  Credit: Jay Williams

Emily Kavanaugh, co-chair of Penzance Chamber of Commerce, who runs cosmetics shop Pure Nuff Stuff, was among the first to sign up. The 51-year-old stresses that it is a far easier process than the name might suggest.

“It is not about getting rid of everything but addressing single use plastic and looking carefully at every bit of plastic in your life,” she says.

Kavanaugh says she was moved to act after noticing the growing amount of dumped plastic every time she took a stroll along the beach.

“I don’t know anybody now who doesn’t go down to the beach and pick up pieces of plastic as they walk,” she says. “It has clearly got worse and requires a concerted effort from all of us.”

In her shop, Kavanaugh now sells hand and body wash bars instead of bottles; moisturising oils in reusable jars and uses corn starch rather than polystyrene packaging.

“It is about reusing everything we can which is a habit we as a society have just fallen out with,” she says. “That should be second nature.”

Up the road at the Honey Pot Café, owner Rachel Gunderson has similarly embraced going plastic free. The 26-year-old has started refusing to use suppliers that over-package goods and is instead buying as much produce locally as possible – a trickle down effect reducing plastic is having on the Penzance economy. Despite serving 60 lunches a day, her business only produces enough waste to fill one domestic wheelie bin a week.

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Rachel Gunderson at the Honey Pot Cafe Credit: Jay Williams

It is not solely middle class cafes and boutiques that have embraced going plastic free. Among the businesses to have signed up is Fraser’s Fish and Chip shop and Jubilee Pool, while Penwith College has started banning polystyrene trays and plastic cutlery in its canteen.

“I am massively convinced this campaign is going to make a difference” Dave Hunter

The Open Air Theatre in Penlee Park, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary, has also removed all single use plastics from its bar.

Dave Hunter, its 62-year-old events manager, admits there is an extra cost to buying properly recyclable cups, wooden cutlery and compostable pots. But this, he says, is far outweighed by the positive reception from its 12,000 visitors a year – many of whom actively requested better recycling facilities.

“I am massively convinced this campaign is going to make a difference,” he says. “People’s mind-sets are starting to change. I look at my eight-year-old granddaughter and already she consciously thinks about litter far more than I ever did at her age.”

Back on the shoreline, Rachel Yates also contemplates how times have changed. As a child, she would play on this same beach by the sewage pipes washing human waste out into the sea before the practise was eventually brought to a halt.

“We always used to fall ill because of the filthy water we were swimming in but it was just normal back then,” she says in amazement.

Perhaps one day we will look back on our current plastic habit with similar incredulity.

How to reduce your plastic use

Refuse plastic carrier bags – including plastic ‘bags for life’ – and always take your own cloth shopping bags.

Stop buying bottled water and use a refillable water flask.

Buy a reusable coffee mug. At present 2.5bn takeaway coffee cups are thrown away each year. Many places offer a discount if you take your own cup. Pret a Manger recently announced 50p off every coffee served in a reusable cup.

Stop buying soap and shower gel in plastic bottles and go back to soap bars.

Buy fruit and veg at the local grocer or farm shop instead of the supermarket. The vast majority sell produce loose or use minimal packaging.

Go back to using a milkman. Milk and juice are delivered to the door in glass bottles which are then taken away and re-used.