Sustainable Bridgnorth was a low-key campaign group, working to promote cleaner, greener living in a pretty Shropshire market town of 12,000 souls that spans the River Severn. Members of the group worked quietly in conservation, campaigning for wildlife and organising litter picks. A short-lived campaign to promote renewables came and went.
And then Blue Planet II catapulted plastic pollution up the political agenda.
Last summer, a three-day litter pick dragged two trailer-loads of plastics from the Bridgnorth stretch of the Severn. That prompted Sustainable Bridgnorth, chaired by CIWEM member Kath Norgrove, and Labour councillor Julia Buckley to call a meeting on plastics, screening Trashed, the 2012 anti-plastics campaign film starring actor Jeremy Irons.
Trashed investigates the scale and impact of our throwaway society, ending with a call to reduce plastic pollution. The meeting had drawn a larger, more diverse crowd than usual. As the credits rolled, the mood turned to anger. Wildlife advocates, residents and traders voiced disgust over the plastic polluting the Severn and demanded to know what they could do to stop it.
Bridgnorth’s Prevent Pointless Plastic (PPP) campaign was born.
In November, Sustainable Bridgnorth called the first public PPP meeting. An alliance of retailers, schools, community groups and individuals agreed to tackle single-use plastics in Bridgnorth, improving recycling and joining the national #PlasticFreeFebruary campaign.
Today, PPP represents Sustainable Bridgnorth, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, retailers, church groups, most of the local schools and the Women’s Institute. It wants to inspire local people and businesses to reduce, re-use and recycle plastic products and has launched a petition, demanding mandatory labelling to make it simpler and easier to recycle plastics.
At first glance, Bridgnorth is a Middle England idyll, a Victorian funicular railway creeping up the cliff-face to disgorge tourists at a castle knocked 15 degrees off-kilter during the English civil war. Half-timbered pubs and independent retailers line the streets that snake up to the 17th century town hall. Through it the runs the Severn, its surface as shiny and impassive as glass in the hard, early-spring sunshine.
What lies beneath is not so pretty.
“During our three-day waterborne litter pick, we recorded well over 5,000 items of litter,” Shropshire Wildlife Trust river-projects officer Luke Neal tells The Environment. “The council helped us to remove three trailer-loads [from the Severn] at Shrewsbury and two trailer loads from Bridgnorth.
“We know, from other studies, that a large proportion of plastic pollution is sub-surface, so we never see it. The vast majority of plastics are worn down to microplastics – and again we cannot collect that at scale… During our river pick, areas that appeared on first glance to be rubbish-free were, without exception, found [to hold] considerable quantities of rubbish.”
A PPP litter pick revealed Bridgnorth’s streets and public spaces to be every bit as blighted with plastic waste as the river.
Sheila Royle’s hillside bungalow looks out across the rolling Shropshire countryside. A retired soil scientist and former secretary of Sustainable Bridgnorth, Royle has seen environmental campaigns come and go. “Campaigning against pointless plastics feels doable,” she says. “There’s consensus on plastics, where campaigns over, say, renewables have proved controversial.”
From the outset, PPP decided to fight plastic on several fronts, broadening the base of the campaign. Three subgroups target local schools, shops and the food industry, and the packaging industry, promoting jute bags and researching alternatives to plastic.
Royle leads the subgroup on shops and foods. She plans to visit all 150 Bridgnorth retailers, to find out how much plastic they use and persuade them to mend their ways, dispensing flyers and display cards to businesses that sign up. Since the government levied a fee on plastic bags, local retailers say use has fallen between 70-90 per cent.
Now, half the shops surveyed have agreed to switch to paper bags. The campaign has benefited from Bridgnorth’s concentration of independent retailers, Royle says. “It’s helped us enormously. These shop managers are in control – they don’t have to check with head office. We have some very clued-in shops.”
Leading by example is Giovanni’s, a local icecream parlour. It has launched compostable coffee cups, lids and cutlery, banned plastic bags and joined 32 fellow retailers to support the Bridgnorth water-refill campaign. It has also switched to refillable cleaning products.
At WH Smiths, the local manager has promised to ditch cellophane packaging on greetings cards. The local Sainsbury’s manager is a PPP stalwart. Because all the major UK supermarkets signed up to the 40-strong Plastic Pact last spring, PPP is pressing the local outlets to make good that pledge.
In March, PPP launched a branded jute bag, allowing retailers to pocket 40p for every £2 bag sold. The group is also helping small businesses that struggle to recycle to pool bins and costs, talking to local waste companies to negotiate bulk deals for small traders.
Talks with local waste-management firms have had less success. One big player refuses to install more recycling bins, citing public misuse, Royle says. And local managers of many national chains simply shrug and refer her to head office.
On a quiet Thursday night, 20 campaigners gather in the basement of the Methodist church to review progress. There is plenty to report.
More pubs and cafés have banned plastic straws. #PlasticFreeFebruary has taken off on social media. BBC Midlands and BBC Radio Shropshire are coming to town to report on the campaign. On Saturday, the busiest market day, PPP will set up stall below the town hall, asking local people to sign the recycling petition and to share tips for going plastic-free.
Bridgnorth running club is ditching plastic cups and water bottles at its next 10K race. Having won support at district level, Councillor Buckley has persuaded Bridgnorth Town Council to endorse the PPP campaign. And town mayor Ron Whittle has invited the group to address the annual town meeting.
Teacher Jacqui Black is leading the campaign with local schools. Ripples from the wave of recent global school strikes for the environment have reached the wilds of Shropshire. Bridgnorth’s children have embraced the plastic-free lunchbox and poster challenges, staging a weigh-in to show how much plastic they’ve saved.
PPP campaign member Mike Golding has invited the group to TCL, his packaging factory, to learn more about the recycling properties of different plastics.
The group has had larger, more opinionated meetings, but the mood in the brightly lit crypt is quietly confident. There are plans to scale up, joining like-minded groups in Church Stretton, Shrewsbury, Newport, Ludlow and Bishop’s Castle to form Shropshire Against Plastic.
Early on Friday morning, the market traders are out in force, setting out their wares beneath the town hall. The stalls display slabs of fresh meat, piles of soil-covered leeks and parsnips and punnets of imported blueberries. Nearly all of it comes lovingly swathed in plastic.
Yes, the produce is farm-fresh, the greengrocer tells The Environment, and no, it’s not great to wrap it in plastic. “It’s the moisture that’s the problem,” he says. “We need someone to invent cost-effective packaging with a waxy film that can keep the moisture in.”
But another stallholder, selling pies, has been happy to switch to paper, “even for the Scotch eggs”. At home, her five-year-old grandson selects what packaging goes in which bin. “It’s his little job and he loves it,” she says. “It’s like a game to him. And it’s made me use a lot less plastic, too.”
Early on, the local media claimed Bridgnorth was about to ban plastic altogether, prompting a public outcry. PPP members discussed and voted against a ban, deciding to ditch pointless plastics step by step.
“Most people found the idea of a ban too overwhelming,” Norgrove explains. “It’s far easier to sell the notion of one baby step leading to another – and far better to have lots of people making small changes than to have a tiny minority do all of it.”
PPP wants Bridgnorth to raise its recycling rates to 80-90 per cent. Right now, the town achieves half of that.
In his office overlooking the market, Frith Resource Management boss Paul Frith expects it to become easier for all of us to recycle more waste and to scale down single-use plastics. UK plans to standardise local collection policies and the resource strategy published late last year show that the government “is getting the message”, he says.
Frith chairs the Midlands branch of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM). He sets out four ways for the UK to prevent plastic pollution; consistent collection policies, a national deposit-return scheme for drinking bottles and legislating for producer responsibility, making the polluter underwrite the costs of recycling. Finally, he says, the treasury must strengthen the business case for recycling.
In the meantime, PPP will continue to press for local and regional change.
“Campaigning against pointless plastics has rejuvenated the Sustainable Bridgnorth group,” Norgrove concludes. “What we’ve learned is that everyone can do something, no matter how small, to achieve a real change. And that’s incredibly exciting.
“For us, success will be to achieve a huge reduction in plastic usage in the town – to see everyone here make one small change. And by starting small, we’ve really gained momentum.”
Sign #PreventPointlessPlastics’ petition: www.facebook.com/sustainablebridgnorth
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