The single use plastic is currently high on the agenda, both with the general public and politically. While the massive focus on it threatens to overshadow even more pressing environmental concerns, it’s great to see such strong feeling about this. With its location in what has been described as one of the most beautiful bays in the world, it’s really important that Penzance plays its part in trying to stem the tide. In any kind of wind or wet weather (both extremely common in this part of the world!), the chances are that litter ends up in the sea or on the beach, where its effects can be severe and long lasting. There is a whole internet full of disturbing images of unsuspecting seabirds trying to feed plastic toys to their new chicks, of seals with plastic fishing line cutting in necks and flippers, or of hermit crabs trying to make their new home in a discarded plastic component rather than a shell.
Thankfully this is a matter very close to the hearts of many in the town, and due to their efforts, Penzance was the first place in the country to be awarded Surfers Against Sewages’ Plastic Free Status.
To achieve Plastic Free Status, towns have to fulfill five criteria, such as undertaking a programme of beach cleans, setting up a steering group to organise the whole thing and crucially, getting complete support from the Town Council who need to pledge to eliminate single use plastic in their day to day workings. Small businesses in the town have leapt aboard the initiative and more and more of them are pledging to vastly reduce or even eliminate single use plastic in their operations. The accommodation sector has a really important role to play here – in recent years before everyone realised what a problem this issue was, B&Bs and hotels were certainly amongst the culprits, with disposable toiletries, condiments, bottles and even cutlery. The PDTA recognises this, and therefore has pledged to do what it can to reduce this impact. Actions can include using mini flasks of fresh milk in bedrooms rather than cartons of UHT, using refillable small bottles in bathrooms and keeping stocks in bulk, decanting butter and jam into glass dishes at breakfast and never giving out unnecessary plastic straws for drinks. Plastic bottles are also a massive issue – businesses can avoid handing these out to guests, and perhaps provide metal drinks bottles to borrow or buy. It’s a case of “how long is a piece of string” – there is almost no limit to what a business can do to clean up its act! Places with gardens can start compost heaps, or “re-wild” parts of the garden to attract pollinating insects, butterflies and birds, or build a pond to attract amphibians.
Unless it is careful, then tourism can be a very destructive force environmentally. What Penzance is aiming to do is prove that by looking after the very environment which makes it such a great place for a holiday, it can benefit the economy as well. We also want to encourage visitors to do the same so that good practice is spread and becomes part of everyday behaviour.
It’s important to remember that this award doesn’t suddenly mean that there is no plastic in Penzance anywhere. Single small communities can do little to change the behaviour of large supermarkets, for example, so there’s no point talking about shrink wrapped cucumber. That’s another battle. It’s also important not to demonise plastic itself – it is a cheap, light and useful material and no one is suggesting that its use should stop entirely. It’s the stuff which is used once then discarded immediately which is the issue. And no one is pretending that one small town in one small part of a small island nation can solve the problem overnight.
However, as a statement, it’s a powerful one, and one which should noticeably clean up our immediate environment.