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7, July 2022


Set up in 2017 by Surfers Against Sewage, Plastic Free Communities is a UK-wide network of passionate anti-plastic campaigners and volunteers.

From our public spaces and nature spots, to our local schools and businesses, single-use plastics show up everywhere we live and work. But they’re avoidable.

Now, five years on, with 831 communities and more than 16,620 volunteers dotted all around the country, that’s exactly what Plastic Free Communities has been striving to change. And they’ve been doing a good job of it too. Thanks to them, it’s estimated that 43.3 million single-use plastics are being eliminated each year – that’s a lot of plastic cups and drinks bottles!

To raise awareness in #PlasticFreeJuly, we caught up with Laura Ford, leader of Plastic Free Peckham, and Impact Reduction & Innovation Lead here at Faith in Nature, to find out more about the single-use plastics problem, and the ambitious work being done to solve it.

Tell us about how and why you started Plastic Free Peckham

In 2018 I kept reading all of these articles about plastic, and I was getting more and more enraged, and feeling kind of powerless. I thought, somebody’s got to do something about this, and it will make me feel better to take some action.

We go to Cornwall on our holidays every year, which is how I first came across, and started supporting, Surfers Against Sewage – although I’m personally not a surfer!

One day they sent an email to their supporters, calling out for community leaders to take part in their Plastic Free Communities initiative. After a meeting with Plastic Free East Dulwich, I realised I could make a big impact in my own area.

While Surfers Against Sewage provide resources, training and targets, each community is run independently by volunteers and is designed to scale depending on the size of area you manage.

What kind of work do you do in the community?

We work with community allies such as schools, community groups and faith groups, as well as independent local businesses – we offer them a free audit of the single-use plastic they’re using and then provide them with a strategy to reduce and eventually eradicate it.

One of our most popular events was a tour of the local waste recycling plant – people are really fascinated by waste and recycling. The thing people don’t realise is that there are real humans sorting through the waste to take out non-recyclable items - so always rinse out your recycling, and try to only recycle things that can be recycled in your area!

We also organise community clean ups, they’re usually every other month. Sometimes we get 70 people and sometimes we get 20 people, but every time I’ll get emails afterwards saying how eye opening it was, and that people have gone and bought their own litter pickers. It can be quite addictive!

What are the biggest misconceptions about plastic waste and recycling?

The thing with ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is we should really be reducing and reusing first and foremost, and recycling should be seen as a last resort. Lots of people think we can recycle our way out of this, but we’ve created so much plastic that we’re unable to tidy up after ourselves, literally. Globally we don’t have the infrastructure to recycle all the single-use plastic we use - so we can’t recycle our way out of this.

All in all there's a poor understanding of what can and can't be recycled, which is understandable, because it's different in every area. There’s no consistency, so it’s easy for people to get confused.

Replacing plastic is not a straightforward thing. In 2011 DEFRA did a study into the carbon footprints of different types of bag - in terms of carbon footprint you’d have to reuse a tote bag 172 times for every one time you used a plastic bag for them to be equivalent. Plus, a lot of people don’t realise that bioplastics are still plastics and they don't actually fit into the recycling streams for most local councils. Though they reduce impact as they’re not made from oil, they're actually really quite hard to recycle and should go in general waste unless you’ve got a specialist recycler.

Plastic is actually a really amazing material in so many ways: it's lightweight and waterproof and it lasts forever. So using it once and then throwing it away just doesn't make sense: we're using up our finite resources on the planet - extracting oil and turning it into plastic, only to use it once and chuck it away. So rather than using it for a single-use packaging, really we should treat plastic as the precious material it is.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

The most rewarding thing is feeling like I'm really connected to my community. And I've made some really good friends with some of the businesses and community groups that I work with.  And working with businesses like this has really helped me to refine how I want to spend my time, working with them to reduce their impact and create a better way of doing business.

The other thing that's really rewarding is the talks that we do in schools. Primary aged kids always come up with such brilliant suggestions – they’re surprisingly well informed and come up with really good suggestions.

What is the most challenging?

Dealing with hostile businesses that don’t give us a chance. I’m here to show them a different way of doing things if they're interested, but I didn’t get into this to fight with people, especially when I know that you have to be in a pretty privileged position to be worrying about single-use plastic!

The businesses I go and speak to are local independent businesses and they're really strapped for cash, paying high business rates and juggling multiple priorities.

I’m always conscious that the swaps I suggest should be affordable – because, unfortunately, a lot of sustainable alternatives are still inaccessible in terms of price point.

What are some things we can all do to reduce our plastic waste?

I’ve got young kids, so picnics and packed lunches are quite a big thing. I don't ever want to buy single-use plastic takeaway packaging, so I keep all the bags from things like bread and cereal and re-use them to pack sandwiches and snacks. It saves money as well. They can be rinsed and re-used, because plastic is so durable!

I also keep old t-shirts and chop them into little rounds to use as make-up remover pads.

But rather than being about quick fixes, it’s about changing our model. It's about changing the way we think about the stuff that we have, not using things once and throwing them away. And that goes for everything. That goes for fast fashion – I don't buy anything new anymore. I buy everything secondhand or vintage.

Our street WhatsApp is an amazing way to get rid of things you don’t need anymore. I know someone who gave away an empty biscuit tin the other day – even that was useful to someone else. I’m a big believer in community sharing; it builds community resilience and will be really valuable as life inevitably gets harder.

Is there anything giving you hope right now?

Something that gives me great hope is the amount that people are now talking about the sustainability agenda in general. That conversation is getting louder and louder, and people are becoming more and more aware of the resources they use – especially now with the cost of living crisis.

And it’s becoming more mainstream - the film Don’t Look Up out earlier this year made people more aware and there are loads of exhibitions about how we use resources - the Design Museum show Waste Age and there’s one at the Barbican at the moment. I just wish the government would move more quickly and we would have a more coherent international effort.

Head to plasticfree.org.uk to find out more about Plastic Free Communities, join a group in your local area, or start your own!

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