John Vidal, environment editor
Saturday April 28, 2007
Modbury is the quintessential small West Country town. Set in a hollow among rolling Devon hills just a few miles from the sea, it has 760 households, a high street, three churches, a primary school, several pubs, two takeaways, a surgery, a small supermarket and 40 or so small shops.
Not much happens in Modbury. Some say the last time the peace was disturbed was in 1643 when Roundheads and Cavaliers fought in its streets. But a revolution of another kind will take place on Monday. At 8am it will become the first plastic bag-free town in Europe.
Spurred by environmental fervour and growing concern about the 100bn or more plastic bags thought to be littering the world and clogging the seas, the town’s 43 traders have unilaterally declared their independence from the plastic bag and have pledged to no longer sell, give away or otherwise provide them to anyone in Modbury for a minimum of six months.
No one knows knows how much it will cost them or the town, or indeed whether Modburians and the holiday-makers who visit the town will rise in revolt.
But from now on, if you buy olives from Adam in the deli, a steak from Simon the butcher, or a sweet and sour from Phil in the Chinese, they will come wrapped in corn starch paper. Helen in the ironmongers, Sue in the gallery and Sarah in the gift shop are moving to cotton. If tourists nip into the Co-op for ice cream, they will be given a cloth bag. Modbury will be full of biodegradable, organic, fairtrade, unbleached, recycled carrier bags of every description – except plastic.
So committed are the retailers that they have commissioned 2,000 official Modbury bags, which could soon be collectors’ items. Made in Mumbai, India, they will sell for £3.95.
The idea of a plastic bag-free town comes from Rebecca Hoskins, a young Modbury-born-and-raised wildlife camerawoman who went to the Pacific last year to film marine life for the BBC but experienced horrendous plastic bag pollution.
“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.”
She returned to Devon, went diving and found the seas there also full of plastic. “So I booked the Modbury art gallery, invited all the traders and showed them my film. At the end they all said they would give up plastic bags.”
“It was very moving,” said Sue Sturton from the Brownston art gallery. “I thought people would turn a blind eye to something happening as far away as Hawaii. But I was wrong. We have a responsibility here. People go to the beaches here and we as shopkeepers are just handing out plastic shopping bags.”
“She massaged us. But it didn’t need much,” said Jane, who runs the St Luke’s hospice charity shop which is turning to paper and cloth bags. The other traders are buying bags for her to use in wrapping customers’ purchases. “I think it could work elsewhere, but this is definitely not a normal town at all.”
“They’ve got it now,” said Ms Hoskins, who gave up her film work two months ago to concentrate on turning the town plastic bag-free. “It seems to have really brought people together. The shops have sent all their unused plastic bags to Newcastle where they are being made into plastic chairs, and they have all set up plastic bag amnesty points where people can bring in the hundreds of bags that they keep under the kitchen sink. Now it’s just a question of seeing if people accept it. We are all trembling now. To be a pioneer is pretty scary.”