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It takes a village

(From Sunday Express S Magazine, 16 June 2019)

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Keen to do her bit to reduce plastic waste, Tricia Welch Bland and the residents of Thames Ditton took to their sewing machines. Here, she tells how one idea snowballed...

We were all glued to our TV sets watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II when we heard the following, “By 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.” The figures speak for themselves. More than 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, 50 per cent of which is for single use, including shopping bags which are in circulation for only about 15 minutes before being binned but remain on the planet, decay resistant, pretty much forever, in landfill or the sea.

We know it’s scary, but while many of us are worried about the future of our planet and how plastic pollution is poisoning the environment, we feel helpless. How can one person make a difference? What is the point in ditching single-use plastic bags and bottles, avoiding plastic-wrapped foods, unnecessary packaging, straws and disposable cutlery if no one else is bothering?

But if we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy the kind of life we have taken for granted – clean beaches and healthy seas, a mostly litter-free countryside and green spaces – we have to make a stand. We can’t carry on as we are. Yes, Government is taking some action. The 5p single-use plastic bag charge introduced in 2015 has taken more than 15 billion plastic bags out of circulation. It is planned to increase the charge to 10p next year and apply it to all shops, rather than just big supermarkets. But it is not enough.

Worldwide, plastic production continues to accelerate and if we don’t reverse this trend we are in big trouble. The ‘more plastic in the sea than fish’ fact is testimony to that.

I’m as ordinary as the next person, but I am doing something about it – and I’m not alone. Where I live, in Thames Ditton, Surrey, there’s a big crafting community, mainly of women who get together to make things. According to Hobbycraft, the UK’s biggest arts and crafts retailer, sales of sewing machines have soared by 65 per cent year on year and its Facebook crafting community is nudging 320,000. The Great British Sewing Bee is televising this buzz. All of a sudden people are learning how to sew again.

The life-changing, single-use plastic bag-ditching moment in Thames Ditton came a couple of years ago when the local crafters community group was knitting and crocheting away in the meeting room of the local library. A salesman for Italian fabric, holding a book of curtain material, popped his head around the door inquiring if it might come in useful. He had loads of discontinued samples. One crafter looked up and said, ‘That’s the size of a shopping bag.’
The idea for Boomerang Bags – totes made of donated fabric – originated in Australia and was born out of a need for alternatives to plastic bags. Boomerang Bags Thames Ditton was the first UK arm of the organisation, which has also taken root in other countries.

The TD Crafters contacted BB Australia HQ, downloaded the template for the BB logo and agreed to meet once a week in ‘the hangout’, a community room above a garage belonging to the local pub, to make the bags. Mick, our friendly landlord, lent the space free of charge.

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While the TD Crafters started sewing in earnest, my job was to get the local shops in Thames Ditton High Street to stock and give them out free to customers instead of plastic bags. The majority here are small independents and didn’t need much convincing to realise customers would love a beautiful, bespoke shopping bag completely free. Eight businesses were quickly signed up, including our wholefoods supermarket, deli, gift shops and cafés. The George & Dragon pub and Ironing Board dry cleaners agreed to act as collection points for fabric donations.

We launched the idea to the community at our monthly Farmers’ Market, where we also gave out Boomerang Bag-making kits containing instructions and enough material for five totes. Word spread and our core group quickly outgrew the hangout. I approached Elmbridge Borough Council to see if we could have free use of a room in our Centre for the Community to make the bags and the TD Boomerang Bag Club was born.

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To keep up with demand we soon realised we needed more sewing bees, so I set out to enlist recruits. I contacted the teacher in charge of the textiles department of our local high school, Hinchley Wood, who readily agreed to come onboard – Boomerang Bags would be perfect for the students’ sustainability project. Thames Ditton Junior School agreed to help as part of its extracurricular activities – pupils could acquire a useful skill as well as learn about the challenges facing the filled with bee-friendly flowers linking flowering habitats across urban areas and beyond. Thames Ditton is a small village but it is making a big difference. It is easy to feel powerless, yet with a little effort and by joining up with friends and neighbours, you can effect change, take control and make things better.” Wednesday is National Refill Day, see refill.org.uk. To start a Boomerang Bag community go to boomerangbags.org. Find Thames Ditton Boomerang Bags on Facebook and Instagram. environment. Local Brownies and Guides followed suit, putting up their hands to make Boomerang Bags for a plastic-free planet badge. I secured funding from our local authority for 10 sewing machines and materials for our schools and community groups and organised crafty coffee mornings for yet more, so we were good to go.

The key point about Boomerang Bags is that they aren’t only about replacing single-use plastic carriers, but are crucial for raising awareness of the fact that simple lifestyle changes can make a difference and lessen our environmental impact. Every bag carries a tag (handmade from cereal boxes) explaining that on average one Boomerang Bag replaces 700 single-use plastic bags because they are used over and over again. That’s a huge amount of plastic prevented from going to landfill or into the sea.

Just how much of a difference we are making came home to me the other day when Barbara, one of our BB makers, who makes bags at home as well as at the club, announced we’d hit the 1,500 mark. I did a quick calculation. If every Boomerang Bag replaces 700 single-use plastic bags on average that means we will have replaced 1,050,000. That’s a big difference.

Our mission now isn’t just to make Thames Ditton a single-use plastic bag-free zone, but to mentor other towns and villages. We were the first High Street to introduce the concept in the UK but there are now Boomerang Bag communities in nearby Claygate, Molesey Hersham and Putney, so it is gathering momentum. Towns further away, including Totnes in Devon, Dorchester in Dorset, Emsworth in Solent, and Newquay, Cornwall, also now have clubs.

In Thames Ditton we are also tackling the problem of single-use plastic water bottles. I signed up as a local champion for Refill, the campaign to eliminate single-use plastic bottles started by charity City to Sea. With nine Refill stations, eight in our High Street and another at the rail station, passersby can walk in to any shop, café or pub showing a Refill sticker and ask for their refillable water bottle to be topped up with tap water. There’s a free app, too, for finding Refill stations.

It is estimated that three bottles of water per adult are sold each week, so this is another great way of significantly reducing single-use plastic and, like Boomerang Bags, it’s free. If one in 10 Brits refilled once a week we would have 340 million fewer plastic water bottles in circulation.

Sunday Express Pic 4There are loads of other things you can do – and which we are doing in Thames Ditton – like starting a litter-picking group to clean up the streets or a community gardening group to weed and plant a neglected public space or transform the local railway station with plants to cheer up the commuters and provide pollinating corridors of planters filled with bee-friendly flowers linking flowering habitats across urban areas and beyond.

Thames Ditton is a small village but it is making a big difference. It is easy to feel powerless, yet with a little effort and by joining up with friends and neighbours, you can effect change, take control and make things better.”

 

Wednesday is National Refill Day, see refill.org.uk. To start a Boomerang Bag community go to boomerangbags.org. Find Thames Ditton Boomerang Bags on Facebook and Instagram.