Juliet Oxborrow and Sue Fleming, co-ordinators of Plastic Free Lewes, look back at its first year of plastic action and what’s happening in 2019.
When we first thought about setting up Plastic Free Lewes last autumn it was partly in response to people increasingly asking us if Transition Town Lewes (TTL) was doing anything about plastic pollution.
Given that TTL had spent a decade trying to encourage less dependence on fossil fuels, it only seemed logical that we addressed the other side of the petro-chemical coin: the rapid and downright terrifying increase both in disposable plastic production and a growing mountain of waste with which even the UK, with its sophisticated waste management infrastructure, was struggling to cope.
We launched Plastic Free Lewes with a screening of the powerful documentary ‘A Plastic Ocean’ at Depot Cinema in December 2017. Scheduled just a couple of weeks before Christmas, we were sceptical that anyone would want to turn out during the height of the festive season to watch a film documenting the pitiful plight of sealife unknowingly ingesting the world’s plastic detritus (and the disturbing knock-on effect that was potentially having on human food chains).
But we needn’t have worried: the cinema screening came three days after the final moving instalment of David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet II”. People wanted to know more about the impact of plastic on marine lifeand we found we had a sell-out on our hands.
It takes a town…
Plastic Free Lewes was never intended to be about a few environmental die-hards taking steps. Instead we wanted town-wide action on our addiction to plastic. At the screening of ‘A Plastic Ocean’, therefore, we asked everyone in the audience to write down what action they personally would like to get involved to help tackle plastic pollution.
Those ideas led to a series of workshops in early 2018. Which in turn led the formation of our Plastic Action groups – each looking to tackle a different aspect of this complex, wide-ranging challenge – including an education group, a drinking water group, a supermarkets group and a local retailers group.
Since then, initiatives have come thick and fast. The Education Group has been engaging with local schools to develop assembly and lesson plans that not only raise awareness of the plastic problem but actively encourage pupils to come up with solutions in school and at home.
The Local Retailers Group has formed a forum for local, independent businesses to come together and explore alternatives to single-use plastic packaging and takeaway items – mindful that plastic-free alternatives can often be a lot more expensive for an individual business to adopt on its own.
Not so super supermarkets
To highlight the fact that the big supermarkets generate more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, the supermarket group has spent some lively Saturday mornings outside supermarkets such as Waitrose (see picture) asking shoppers thinking about what plastic they can and can’t do without. More supermarket engagements are planned – and in the meantime, members of the group have been steadfastly contacting national retailers by letter and social media to ask them to account for various plastic packaging excesses.
And the Drinking Water group has had resounding success. So far it has signed up more than 40 Lewes cafes, restaurants, pubs and other outlets to the national Refill scheme – helping to cut down on the use of single-use water bottles by offering tap-water refills for free.
Beyond the Plastic Action groups there have been talks, workshops plus plenty of outreach to other groups in Lewes and beyond throughout the year. In July we supported the Ouseday Raft Race in encouraging spectators not to throw plastic missiles into the river – offering the alternative of wildlife-friendly Easy Ousey Jelly instead.
We’ve worked with students on the Prince’s Trust Team Programme at East Sussex College (formerly Sussex Downs College) on a community project to replace single-use plastic with reusables. We’ve also connected up with CLEAR, a charity working in Indonesia to help coastal communities manage their plastic waste at the grassroots, and we’re keen to work with them more over the coming year.
We’ve also entered into strategic partnerships with organisations across Lewes, including Lewes Town Council (which has committed to phasing out single-use plastic from its premises), Lewes District Green Party, Lewes Liberal Democrats and Labour Environmental Forum – plus Depot Cinema, the Railway Land Wildlife Trust and others.
In October, we held a major panel discussion, The Truth About Plastic, at Lewes Town Hall in collaboration with Plastic Free Seaford and Plastic Free Eastbourne. We hope it’s the start of many district-wide collaborations, enabling towns and villages to band together to call on district and county councils to take concerted, unified action not only on how plastic waste is managed and recycled but how its consumption can be reduced in the first place.
Coming soon: The Plastic Free Pledge
Over the past year, we’ve done quite a bit. But we’ve still only scratched the surface in terms of raising awareness of the consequences of plastic pollution and inspiring action to help tackle it.
In 2019, we’re hoping to steps things up a bit with the launch of the Plastic Free Lewes Pledge. This is a 5-point commitment that anyone can pledge to reduce their plastic consumption. There will be a version of the pledge for individuals, retailers and non-retail businesses.
We hope the Plastic Free Lewes Pledge is going to encourage lots more people to think about how much plastic they consume at home, at work and on the move, take some simple but powerful steps to reduce it – and urge the businesses and suppliers that they use to do likewise.
Want to get involved?
We hope you’ll be inspired to take the Plastic Free Lewes Pledge when we launch it next year. But if you’d also like to get more involved in Plastic Free Lewes then come along to one of our monthly meetings.
Dates for meetings (which are always held at 7.30pm at the Linklater P