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Is It Really Possible To Go ‘Plastic Free’? This Town Is Showing The World How

Penzance, a coastal town in England, achieved “plastic free” accreditation in 2017, since then more than 100 other communities have done the same.


PENZANCE, ENGLAND – As waves crash against the art deco wall of Jubilee Pool in the one of the country’s most westerly coastal towns, Sam Dean is talking about single-use plastics. Specifically, how to wean people off them.


Sam Dean at the Jubilee Café in Penzance with some of the reusable glass coffee cups he sells. Photo by: Anna Turns

Dean is the food and beverage manager of the Jubilee Pool Café, which calls itself a ”single use plastic free venue.” Customers will find no plastic straws, cups or cutlery here. Instead there are wooden stirrers, cornstarch straws, and disposable coffee cups made out of a biodegradable material. The café also sells glass to-go mugs.


“There’s a shame associated with individually wrapped things, and by moving the focus towards reusables we’re enhancing the customer experience whilst improving the quality and provenance of products on offer,” said Dean.


But much more remains to be done, he says. He’s considering making customers pay more for disposable coffee cups to further encourage them to ditch single use plastic.


On nearby Chapel Street ― where 18th century buildings house gift shops, antique stores and boutique guesthouses ― is the natural skincare store Pure Nuff Stuff. Inside, shelves are stocked with bamboo toothbrushes, plastic-free dental floss, solid shampoo and moisturizer bars.


Emily Kavanaugh, the store’s owner, said she has noticed dramatic changes in people’s buying habits in the town over the last year or two. “We’re now making four times as much soap compared to last year as more people switch from bottled shower gel, and most online customers jump at the chance to opt for plastic-free packaging,” she said.


Pure Nuff Stuff and the Jubilee Pool Café are just two of the businesses that are involved in a huge community effort — involving local residents, schools and government ― to stamp out single-use plastics in Penzance.


In 2017, this town of 21,000 people became the first community in the U.K. to be awarded “Plastic Free” status by the conservation nonprofit Surfers Against Sewage as part of its Plastic Free Communities initiative.


Those arriving at the picturesque Cornish harbor town by road are greeted by a black sign with “Welcome to Plastic Free PZ, Reduce, Refill, Rethink” spelled out in orange LED lights.


“There’s so much collaboration on every level here in Penzance,” said Kavanaugh. “It’s a small town so we all talk to each other, share ideas and resources and we have a mind to be useful to each other. It’s an exciting time.”
Emily Kavanaugh, owner of Pure Nuff Stuff in Penzance. Photo by: Anna Turns

The plastics crisis is increasingly visible everywhere, but especially in coastal towns like Penzance. In 2016, the world produced over 320 million tons of plastic, a figure set to double by 2034, according to Surfers Against Sewage, which was founded by individuals who live in the region. Approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution reach our oceans daily, and many of these wash up on beaches. During just one U.K.-wide weekend beach clean in 2019, volunteers collected nearly 12 tons of litter, an average of 558 items for every 100 meters of beach cleaned.


The inundation of plastic waste is the reason Surfers Against Sewage decided to set up the Plastics Free Communities campaign, which targets single-use plastic items such as straws, bags, cups and bottles. It’s a grassroots campaign, with the aim of engaging whole communities in a commitment to take serious steps to reduce plastics.


To qualify for accreditation, communities need to follow a five-point action plan, including securing local government support; working with businesses to reduce their single-use plastics; teaming up with schools and community organizations; holding plastic-free events, like rallies or mass “unwraps” (where people leave the plastic packaging from their groceries at the supermarket checkout); and setting up a diverse local steering group on plastics.


In Penzance, the effort to become plastic free was led by Rachel Yates, a former journalist who is now the Plastic Free Communities project officer.


An aerial view of Penzance, Cornwall. Photo by: Getty Images