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Carried away with pride

A year after Modbury in southwestern England became the first town in Europe to ban plastic bags, Hannah Pool pays a visit to see how life has changed for shoppers and traders. What will the residents target next?
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The town of Modbury in the county of Devon, in south-west England, is an unlikely spot for a revolution. Nestled on the South Hams coast, 27 kilometres east of Plymouth, it is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of place. With a population of around 1,600, it is the kind of community that considers you a newcomer unless you have several generations of family buried in the grounds of the local church. "It's fiercely rural and fiercely Devon," says Rebecca Hosking, a wildlife documentary-maker and arguably Modbury's most -- perhaps only -- famous resident.

At this time last year no one had heard of either Hosking or Modbury, but both have become synonymous worldwide with one thing: plastic bags. On May Day last year, the unassuming town rather grandly announced that it would be the first community in Europe to become "plastic shopping bag-free". Hosking, the leading force behind the ban, was horrified by the marine pollution she had seen while filming in the Pacific Ocean. After seeing her film [Message in the Waves], local traders implemented a self-imposed ban on plastic carriers. Within a fortnight the whole town was behind the project.

Twelve months on, townsfolk are keen to paint the scheme as 100% successful. Request a plastic bag these days in Modbury and you will be asked politely if you really need one, and if you absolutely do, you will be charged five pence (10 US cents) for a corn-starch alternative. The Co-op store also sells string bags, and for around $6 you can pick up a specially designed canvas Modbury "bag for life" (ethically produced, of course).

But it is clear the success has come at some cost. Modbury's shopkeepers and residents have become accustomed to satellite vans and camera crews from around the world setting up camp on their streets, and Hosking herself has grown used to being referred to as "the bag lady".

The backlash took a while, but it was fierce. First, there were descriptions of Modbury both as a radical town, full of reactionary hippies, and as a place overrun by gas-guzzling “Chelsea tractors”, as large four-wheel-drive (4x4) vehicles are increasingly being called in Britain. ("Any 4x4 you see will be a working one, and it will be covered in mud," says Sue Sturton, owner of the local gallery.) Then came the accusations that banning plastic bags was a pointless token gesture, "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic", as the climate scientist James Lovelock called it.

"Absolutely, I agree," says a slightly exasperated Hosking. "We always said plastic bags were just the tip of the iceberg. It's a shame that message got lost."

Some traders have been criticised in the national press because they still use plastic packaging. "It's sad that people feel the need to criticise,” says Sturton. “The only claim we've made is that we were going to make Modbury plastic shopping bag-free, which it is."

But Hosking bore the brunt of the backlash. "I got called a green Stalinist, and someone wrote, 'Rebecca Hosking is a watermelon: green on the outside and red in the middle,'" she says, with a laugh. "I get embarrassed. A lot of environmentalists are so cross with the amount of time that has been given to plastic bags. There are far more important things to be talked about."

In fact, mention plastic bags in Modbury these days and you are likely to be met with a groan. Modbury has moved on: once the inhabitants had got rid of plastic bags, it became impossible for them to ignore other forms of packaging. It was a chain reaction, says Hosking, proudly. "They have woken up."

For example, the butcher, Simon Wilkinson, now packs meat in biodegradable cornstarch bags, the florist wraps bouquets in cornstarch cellophane and has replaced ribbon with paper and raffia, and Adam Searle, owner of the local delicatessen, puts sandwiches in brown paper bags rather than plastic boxes.

"Previously, I used plastic pots for clotted cream and olives, and I used plastic boxes for salad boxes, but now I've moved over to these," Searle says, holding out one of his new cartons. "They look like plastic, but are made out of corn starch. They are 100% biodegradable, so break down to nothing on your compost heap. We've also moved away from using plastic packaging for sandwiches, so now I just present them on a paper plate in a brown paper bag. Initially, we switched to white paper bags, then I realised bleach was used to make them so I moved over to the plain brown ones, which are better for the environment."

Even these are offered reluctantly: Modbury would rather we got out of the habit of using disposable bags altogether, than simply switching to paper (which still often comes with a large carbon footprint). And it is not just the evils of plastic bags that Modbury has woken up to: Wilkinson recently replaced all his fridges and vacuum packers with energy-efficient models. "We've also changed all our packaging," he says. "We've even gone back to greaseproof paper. All our packaging is biodegradable."

Go into Pip's, the greengrocer, and you will now see giant tubs of eco-sensitive detergent behind the counter. Most of the produce in the shop is also sold loose (the shop smells wonderful as a result), and brown paper bags hang by the rows, rather than the plastic bags the most greengrocers and supermarkets use. In fact, the few items that are still wrapped in plastic, such as grapes, salads and cucumbers, look out of place and unappetising because of it.

The bag ban has affected how residents think about other things. "After a month, all the traders wanted to know what they should do next," says Hosking. They have a new target: on April 27, the nearest tidal time to the first anniversary of the town going plastic-bag free, the people of Modbury scheduled a mass beach clean.

"Whatever we can recycle, we will,” says Hosking. “Whatever we can't, we'll take photos of it so we can log what is washing up. Whatever we notice is the most significant thing will be the next thing we'll work on to remove."

Does she have a hunch what the most likely contender will be? "Plastic water bottles. They really are a long-time problem," says Hosking.

The traders already have started talking to the nearest spring-water company, Devon Hills, about whether it would be willing to switch to reusable glass bottles. Searle also has been researching the viability of using cornstarch bottles. There is one being produced in Australia that he is particularly taken by: "They have a seed in each bottle, so when it breaks down on a rubbish heap, a tree will grow from your bottle. I think it's a beautiful idea."

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

Homepage photo by Kate_A

The English town of Modbury has made a global name for itself through its campaign to be plastic-bag-free, and it has other environmental goals in mind. Like many cities and towns around the world, China has launched a campaign against plastic-bag pollution, banning the use of the thinnest bags beginning June 1.

What ecological initiatives can your town take a leading role in?

Let us know on the forum what you think.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

一个问题

我有个问题,薯片的袋子也是塑料袋,而且是一次性的,这该被禁止吗?
——Loyi,Nanjing

One question

I wonder if the plastic bags containing potato chips should be banned though they are disposable. Loyi,Nanjing

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

薯片的袋子

现在人们还只关注塑料购物袋,是因为塑料购物袋像是包装外面的包装,有的时候是可有可无的,有时候是有替代品可以选择的。这部分急需解决的问题恰好比较好解决,比如可以重复使用的布袋,或者可以生物降解的玉米淀粉袋。假设我们要禁止薯片包装袋,那一定要有可替代品或者考虑塑料回收再生。

禁止这种行政办法也不是控制塑料生产消费的唯一手段,比如爱尔兰从2002年开始实行的PlasTax计划,用征税的办法从经济上控制了塑料购物袋问题。

ZC, New York

About potato bags

Up to now plastic shopping bags are the focus of attention, as they are for containing packaged goods. In some cases shoppers can do without them, while in others there are alternative options available. The most urgent aspect of the problem happens to be the easiest to resolve. We can use reusable cloth bags to replace them, or turn to degradable corn starch bag as a substitute. As for potato packages, if they are to be banned, there should be replacement available or plastic recycle system in place. Besides, administrative ban is not the only method to control the manufacture and consumption of plastic goods. For example, the Irish Plas Tax scheme that came into effect in 2002 solved the problem of plastic shopping bags through taxation.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

解决本源问题

任何事物的存在都有其必然的道理,就好比塑料袋好比塑料水瓶。为了保护环境,我不反对减少塑料袋的使用,但仅仅只是这样是不够的。正如文中所提,革命性的行动会带来更多的连锁反应。真的普及使用了纸制品,为了少使用一个塑料袋而牺牲一棵树也是划不来的。(夸张了点)

所以,我认为不如花点时间和精力研究开发:如何使塑料制品在回收后变得无污染以及制定如何使塑料制品能做到回收最大化、效率最优化的策略来的更有益处。

-- Hugh,Shanghai

tackle the problem at the root

Every existant thing has a cause. Plastic bags and bottles are no exceptions. I'm not opposed to controling the use of plastic bags for the sake of environmental protection, but that's far from enough. Radical measures will trigger a chain of responses, as pointed out by the author. As a potential substitute, paper products come at the expense of forest. So I think we should invest more time and efforts in fields including researching and developing plastic products that can be recycled without pollution, and how to maximise the recycle rate and efficency of plastic products.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

改变人们的想法是必要的

在面对气候变化以及环境质量下降这一问题中为了适应我们的想法和行动,我们可以用一种新的关于美的观点。比如,有些人认为风力涡轮机是难看的,它们是在风景中划上伤痕并且埋葬风景如画的美景。我却不这么认为。我们需要把这些涡轮机当作是美妙的绿色机器。它们当然比塑料袋要美的多,那些塑料袋被树枝缠住,漂浮在河里海上,缠绕在那些无辜的动物的脖子上腿上或是堵塞了下水管道系统。至少,我们都需要意识到我们如何处理那些塑料垃圾。这有很多类型的(主要是)基于石油的环境威胁以至于连回收公司都不愿意接收所有类型的塑料垃圾。这是全世界城市以及乡镇的人们可能的破坏活动之一。许多当地政府急于提升他们的回收速率,他们将支持这场战役。——马修

Shifts in thought are needed

In adjusting our thinking and behaviour in the face of climate change and environmental degradation, we could use a new perception of beauty. For example, some people think that wind-power turbines are ugly and that they scar the landscape and ruin scenic views. I don't. We need to see these turbines as the graceful green machines that they are. They are certainly more beautiful than plastic bags that are caught in the branches of trees, floating in rivers and seas, stuck around the necks or legs of innocent animals or blocking up drainage systems.
At the very minimum, we all need to be attentive to how we dispose of plastic waste. There are so many different types of this (chiefly) petroleum-based environmental menace that even recycling companies don't accept all forms of it.
That's one area where people in cities and towns around the world can demand action. Many local governments, keen to raise their recycling rates, would support such a campaign. -- Matthew

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

租一个袋子怎么样?

租不如说借,因为租赁袋子不需要钱,这种事5月10日将在东莞展开,1000多个商家第一批参与,一种尝试,希望带来一种改变。
详细内容在www.ooe.cn

Ever thought about renting a cloth bag?

Actually it's about loaning a cloth bag for shopping, as the bags are lent out for free. We will put this idea into practice in May 10 at Dongguan. Over 1,000 businesses have agreed to join this program. Hope it can help change things for the better. For more details please visit: www.ooe.cn

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

借一个布袋

东莞提出的这个想法不错。我们使用过多的塑料袋,往往只是因为我们冲动购物的时候,手边没有一个可以重复使用的袋子。--Matty

Renting a cloth bag

This idea from Dongguan is a good one. Often we end up with excess plastic bags simply because we make spontaneous purchases when we don't happen to have a reusable bag with us. -- Matty