A decade ago I visited Modbury, a picturesque, rather conservative place, to find out how it became the first town in Europe to ban plastic bags in shops. It took this south Devon town a month to go plastic bag-free after resident Rebecca Hosking showed local traders a film she’d just made about plastic bags killing marine life in Hawaii. It was surreal to see how quickly behaviour changed: suddenly, carrying a plastic bag was antisocial behaviour.
Rather more slowly, the rest of Britain has been catching up with Modbury. England finally introduced a 5p charge for single-use plastic bags in 2015. Each person once used, on average, 140 bags a year; now it’s 25.
Ten years after Modbury, small communities are again leading the transformation of our antisocial relationship with plastic. The west coast village of Aberporth is aiming to become the first single-use-plastic-free place in Wales. Its pub has switched from plastic to paper straws and ditched condiment sachets; the shop sells milk in glass bottles.
As in Modbury, this change is driven by direct experience: villagers are shocked by the plastic washing up on their shores; Plastic Free Aberporth member Gail Tudor is also a film-maker who witnessed plastic pollution on a 10-day trip around Britain’s coast.
We assume that cities are a cradle of innovation, but sustainable living is often led by small communities, from Eigg (clean energy) to Balcombe (community energy) to Penzance (plastic-free). This is no accident: an inspirational individual can get things done in small places. Face-to-face dialogue is more compelling than media or social media. And living more closely with others shapes human behaviour – the shaming of plastic bag-use saw Modbury change rapidly.
Hopefully it won’t take a decade for the government to follow Aberporth on single-use plastics. Charges could reduce use and better reflect their true cost to our planet. Policymakers are fearful of backlashes against red tape and the nanny state, but the public response to nudges such as the plastic bag charge or smoking ban shows we are supremely adaptable. Therein lies our best hope for survival.
The beauty of imperfection
Unfortunately some communities have to expend energy in rearguard actions to save basic green benefits, such as Sheffield’s street trees. Last week, the city council voted in favour of felling 41 trees planted after the first world war to remember fallen soldiers. They claim it would cost £500,000 to retain the trees.
I’ve walked the main memorial on Western Road, and PFI partner Amey’s £310,090 “repair” quote represents perfection: “build-outs” of pavements, reflective bollards and, presumably, profit. The trees have wrinkled the pavement, but residents live with imperfections because they value mature trees. This combination of the council and Amey has form, quoting £50,000 to “save” one elm tree on Chelsea Road. Locals hired an independent engineer who estimated the cost at £3,500.
As tree memorials are butchered, let’s not forget that Sheffield’s Labour councillors have fallen too – victims of self-destructive group-think. Someone – Jeremy Corbyn, the audit commission or ClientEarth spring to mind – must stage an intervention. Or tell councillors to get two quotes before they make their decisions, like the rest of us.