Friday, 6 August 2010

Take your pick, plastic bags or live seabird chicks?

If there is one single person in Britain who has done more to highlight the harm that plastic can cause when it finds its way into the oceans, rivers and soil, that person must be Rebecca Hoskins. Many of you will have heard of Rebecca, she is the woman who, after witnessing the devastation plastic was causing to the wildlife in and around the waters of the pacific ocean, resolved to bring to the attention of the public, just where the plastic we all use and throw away, ends up. She had been in the pacific, filming a wildlife documentary for the BBC and saw at first hand, what this plastic was doing to the wildlife there. “It really affected me," she said. "I have never cried behind a camera before. I'm not a blubby person. But it broke my heart to see animals entangled in plastic, albatrosses dying in plastic, dolphins trailing plastic and seals with their noses trapped in parcel tape roll. The sea is now like a trash can and the plastic is there for ever. It doesn't go away for hundreds of years. What I witnessed was just so unnecessary. All this damage is simply caused by our throwaway living."

Visiting the bird's breeding grounds on Midway Island, site of the world's largest marine national park opened by none other than President George Bush, should, therefore, have been a highlight of the year she spent filming. But what Rebecca witnessed on the shores of that white sand atoll 1,000 miles from Honolulu was a nightmarish vision. "It was impossible to walk in a straight line without standing on them - the dead chicks were everywhere," she recalls, "I felt cross, angry and sad all at the same time," she said.

Two-fifths of the 500,000 Laysan chicks born on Midway each year die. Though not exclusively the cause of this devastating mortality rate, one of the prime reasons, she believed, was the vast and growing slicks of plastic that pollute the world's oceans.

After a couple of days in the hot sun, the bodies of the chicks start to rot and the cause of their death becomes all too apparent amid the stench. Children's toys, plastic bags, even asthma inhalers, spill from the putrefying carcasses of the birds. In the course of an hour spent combing the body-strewn beach, she and a colleague gathered 400 cigarette lighters and 800 toothbrushes.

The chicks' mothers have often flown 2,000 miles to forage for this deadly meal, bringing it back to the nest."By instinct, they believe that anything colourful on the surface of the water is squid, so they pick it up, swallow it and fly the long journey back to regurgitate it into the mouths of their offspring. Their stomachs fill up with plastic and they die of dehydration and starvation," she says. It was enough to move her to tears - and action.

Back home in Modbury, a small rural town in Devon, she decided she something had to be done, so she organised a public showing of the firm she had made and invited the towns traders to a screening. The traders were so moved by what they saw, they immediately voted afterwards to source alternatives to the plastic bags they had long been giving to their customers, even the towns supermarket came on board. Thus in 2007, Modbury became Europe's first plastic bag free town. All thanks to the efforts of one determined woman.

Mankind's appetite for the plastic bag is deeply daunting. It is estimated that one million are used every minute - their average working life just 12 minutes before they are discarded. Every year, each person on the planet will consume 300 of them - nearly one each every day. In terms of their environmental cost, the figures are equally stark, As Rebecca painted out "Plastic stays in the environment for between 500 and 1,000 years. Every plastic item that was ever made is still in existence. Some of it starts to break down - maybe into tiny pieces but it is still there."

The townspeople of Modbury have woken up to the harm plastic can do. And are looking for even more ways to reduce their reliance on it. For example, the butcher, now packs meat in biodegradable corn-starch bags, the florist wraps bouquets in corn-starch cellophane and has replaced ribbon with paper and raffia, and the local delicatessen, owner 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," he 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," he said.

Of course there has been a backlash, with some environmentalists calling the focus on plastic bags a diversion from the real threats posed to the planet, such as greenhouse gases and over population, but such criticism comes, I feel from lack of awareness of what is at stake here. And, all of us can only do what we do! The same line of criticism is used too, whenever it is suggested that we all need to cut back on our CO2 emissions, ‘no matter what I do, emissions from the rest of the word will continue to increase,’ someone will say.

The good news is that it seems that the message spread by people like Rebecca Hoskins is being listened to. A report last year showed that we in this country have cut the number of plastic bags we use by half, in the past four years. And if that means that even a few less sea creatures die from plastic stagulation and choking, it wouldn’t have been a waste of time.


  1. I find this really interesting! That one woman can do so much for her town. But also scary -- I'm very sensitive to corn and its byproducts, so wrapping food items in corn would make me sick. I wonder if this is the first step on the way to reducing their town's dependence on single-use items, or if this is as far as they'll go.

  2. Hello Simplsavvy. I am not a great of so called biodegradable plastics either. From what I have read, they take longer to beak down then the manufacturers admit. And they will only break down by being exposed to high temperatures.

    It seems that the traders in Modbury are now looking to take further steps to reduce any dependence they have on plastic. There are other towns around the UK, too, who have followed Modbury's lead.

  3. Great work John. Where did you find out about Rebecca Hoskins? I'd love to know a little more about her story.

  4. Hi great post but I have to say that my compostable bags do just that in my compost heap along with everything else.

    Its great to see more plstic free bloggers. I have been boycotting plastic for years now and sourcing biodegradable alternatives. For list of plastic free products check out my blog

  5. Hello Jacob. Thank you for the comments. Rebecca used to have a web site which carried information about what she was doing, clips from the films she has made, as well as a lot of information about the effects plastic is having on the environment. She has now taken over the running of her fathers farm near to Modbury, which is run along sustainable lines. The BBC screened a film about her last year which you can view here:

    Here is an article from The Independent newspaper, from 2007, about her campaign:

    She has also published a book called Ban The plastic Bag, details of which you will find by clicking onto the image at the top right of this blog. Best wishes

  6. Thanks for the links I appreciate it!

  7. I think we all need to reduce the amount of plastic in our lives and there are often, but perhaps not always, better alternatives to plastic bags. However, you may find this post from George Monbiot interesting

    and this one even more interesting

  8. Karin

    I agree that on their own, plastic bags do not represent a very large component of plastic waste overall. But the bag is a symbol of our throwaway society, and whilst the use of these bags has halved within the past four years, they are still totally unnecessary. They also represent a first step for those people who are just becoming aware of the problems plastic pose. Remember there are many people out there who have little or no idea of the mess plastic is posing to the environment, and weaning themselves off plastic bags is a painless, first step. As one of the contributors put it after Monbiot's, 'War on plastic bags is waste of time.' article "Being forced to re-use bags has given many their first painless experience of recycling. They may well cheer themselves for it but I think they will more likely be open to the next tiny measure that environmentalists manage to introduce." Monbiot likes to create controversy, I know, for I am a subscriber to his posts. Plastic bags, are an important front line issue. As the traders of Modbury discovered, when they voted to ban the use of those bags from their town, they then began looking for other ways waste to lessen their dependence of the material. As an old Chinese proverb puts it, a journey of a thousand miles, begins with one small step.

  9. Fair point, John. I think you are probably right, the issue of plastic bags can get people thinking more widely about their impact on the planet and can be an easy first step - although it probably took us a couple of years to get properly organised and I have had to acquire quite a few alternatives to plastic bags to make sure I always have an adequate supply on me - and just occasionally I still manage to forget.

  10. Hi again karin. Yes we all slip up, I don't think there should be any blame attached to anyone who choose to do things differently. We do what we can do, and not everyone has the time or inclination to be properly organised. Like the bottled water, you drink, you enjoy it, and that is the point of live isn't it! I'm always weary of those environmental policemen! x