PLASTIC FREE EXETER – Kirsty Barker and Sara Palmer

PLASTIC FREE EXETER – Kirsty Barker and Sara Palmer

Written by Joff Alexander-Frye and photos by Nick Hook.


Sometimes, the extent to which a community is able to change is directly linked to the decisions, actions and legislations of its ruling bodies. However, history has shown us that, there are also times, when things need to start from the ground up, rather than the top down.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Kirsty Barker and Sara Palmer; two young women who are part of the pioneering Plastic Free Exeter (PFE) team. PFE is one such ‘ground-up movement’ – a social enterprise whose sole aim is to reduce levels of single-use plastics (SUPs) and, in doing so, reduce the impact on the environment, ecosystem and wildlife of Exeter, the city which we all love. They are clear in pointing out that some plastics are, in fact, incredibly useful and necessary but it is SUPs that present the most damaging form of the material, making up about 50% of all plastics produced in the world.

Whether it is the cup you have your coffee in, the straw that you use to drink a soft drink (what happened to good old sipping?) or the bottles that your water comes in when you purchase your meal-deal in a lunchtime rush, most of these plastics are made solely for that purpose and will not be used for anything else, ever again. Ever. Again. And with scientists suggesting that most plastics take between 500-1000 years to decompose, that is an unsustainably short-term product life-cycle. Ten minutes of use in return for 1000 years of decomposition (whether in landfill, in the oceans or elsewhere) is hardly a great deal.

Of course, the subject of ocean plastics has come to the forefront of our collective minds in the UK since Sir David Attenborough’s excellent and chilling episode of Blue Planet 2, which showed a mother Pilot Whale mourning for the loss of her stillborn calf; dead because of the toxic levels of chemicals in their habitat. And the primary cause of those toxic levels of chemicals? Plastic waste.

So, when photographer Nick Hook and I recently sat down with Kirsty and Sara at Mango’s Cafe, on Exeter Quay, I was expecting a somewhat solemn chat. In fact, I had one of my most-laughter filled interviews to date. It turns out that saving the planet doesn’t have to be boring

Let’s dive in.


Hi Kirsty and Sara. So great to see you and I can’t wait to hear more about the fantastic work you are doing. First of all, perhaps you could tell me a little more about Plastic Free Exeter?

KIRSTY: Well, probably the first thing to say is that this is all about creating a critical mass of people in Exeter, pulling in the right direction. In connection with the Row for the Ocean (RFTO) challenge that I am involved with, we approached the charity Surfers Against Sewage about the prospect of creating a plastic reduction campaign in Exeter. They had already been approached by a variety of other like-minded individuals in the city, so they put us in touch with them and we had our first joint meeting. It kind of went from there.

SARA: Kirsty is right. It has to happen from the ground-up rather than the top-down. Some friends and I had decided at the turn of the year that we wanted to organise some sort of plastic straw ban (or similar project) in Exeter. One night I Googled ‘reducing plastic in Exeter’ and the RFTO website came up. So, I got in touch and Kirsty replied saying that they were having their first PFE meeting at Artigianos on January 9th. That is where we first met.

KIRSTY: There were about six or seven of us at that first meeting and that is where we decided to set things up formally and begin agreeing on our objectives. It took a couple of months to lay the foundations (i.e. a bank account, Facebook page etc) but we haven’t looked back since.

SARA: One of the nicest things about the campaign so far is that friends have started to tag me on social media, showing me some of the ways that they have reduced their usage of plastics. It’s become a running joke on nights out too. For example, if a bar gives me a plastic straw in a drink that I order, my friends will kick up the biggest stink and almost force me to make a scene about it. It’s embarrassing sometimes but I suppose it makes an impact!

So, tell me about some of those objective that you have agreed upon for the PFE campaign?

SARA: In order for Exeter to be declared Plastic Free (by 2020), we have settled on five key objectives, in line with the guidelines set out by Surfers Against Sewage. They have undertaken this sort of project elsewhere in the U.K already, so have first-hand experience of the challenges and issues that can present themselves. The first objective is to get the local council to pass a motion banning the use of SUPs. We thought this was going to be the hardest one to achieve, but actually we’ve already achieved it! We campaigned outside of the full council meeting on April 24th and, as we gathered to protest outside of the council building, councillors walked past and were actually really happy to engage with us and explain how much they agreed with the principle of what we are doing. That night, the motion that we had hoped for was passed. It felt very surreal but also really cool to have achieved this usually difficult step so quickly and easily.

KIRSTY: This council decision came with a commitment that they would attempt to remove the use of SUPs by the end of 2018, except for where they were tied in to contracts that didn’t allow them to make changes that quickly.

That is an absolutely huge result for you and your campaign!

SARA:  Yeah, it’s massive. We thought it would be one of the last things to be ticked off but, instead it was our first! This is really unusual for plastic reduction campaigns and I think shows how forward-thinking our council is here in Exeter.

KIRSTY: In fact, Exeter will actually be the largest place in the UK to achieve plastic free status so far, if we manage to do it.

And talk me through the next objective that you are working towards?

SARA: The second key objective for us is encouraging Community Action. It ties in with that ‘ground-up’ approach that we were talking about. The main thrust of this objective is to get members of the public engaged with the concept of plastic reduction and active in the actual process of making that happen. This is where, for example, our litter picks have come from.

KIRSTY: Our most recent one was down at the Quay and had about fifty or sixty people taking part. Not bad when you factor in that it was a horrible rainy Saturday morning. Some of the PFE team were texting on the morning saying “No-one is going to turn up. The weather is so shit!” but, sure enough, we had a strong turn out and collected 90kg of waste in one hour. The guys from Saddles & Paddles and A.S Watersports were really generous in letting us borrow some equipment for free which helped us get out onto the water and pick up some waste that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise get to. A man from the council then came and collected the waste for us and sorted it too. He said it was one of the highest percentages of plastic waste that he had seen in a litter pick since being in his role.

SARA: That one event provided the movement with hundreds of Facebook likes too, which helps the cause and helps spread the word on social media. Next, in July, we have a ‘plogging’ event – sort of like a park run but people pick up litter as they run. We’ve also just done a ‘Plastic Unwrap’ at the big Sainsburys at Alphington. They’ve been super keen and onboard with our plans. Basically, we encouraged shoppers to do their usual shopping but, at the end, unwrap anything contained in plastic packaging and leave it at the supermarket. A way of saying ‘We don’t want this sort of packaging on our food!’. It’s important for people to realise that non-plastic alternatives aren’t always completely green as well though. For example, glass bottles or fabric bags still have a sizeable carbon footprint when you look at how they are made and distributed within retail environments.

KIRSTY: Yeah – for example, it takes 50 uses of a fabric bag before it is carbon neutral.

It’s certainly a multi-layered and complex issue. I suppose small steps and small actions add up though. Briefly talk me though the other three objectives?

KIRSTY: The third objective for us is Local Resistance. This is appealing to local businesses to resist traditions that are environmentally unsustainable; like offering sachets of condiments instead of refillable glass bottles.

SARA: Yeah, or what about straws? People argue about whether to replace plastic straws with biodegradable ones. How about remove straws completely and only give them to people who specifically ask for them?

KIRSTY: Then the fourth objective is to have a Flagship Employer in the city who is championing this cause and has committed to reducing the use of three different SUPs. We have actually already achieved that and are proud to have two Flagship Employers; the University of Exeter and the MET Office.

SARA: And finally, the fifth objective is to cement a Steering Group, responsible for continuing the conversation and also engaging with education and community groups. This will ensure that the initial momentum and impact isn’t lost, and that real progress is made in the city.

So, what are the next steps for you guys then?

SARA: Well, our total aim (in order to have Exeter accredited with the title of being ‘Plastic Free’) is to have 30% of schools and businesses in the city pledged to reducing three different SUPs. We will be working more closely with people like the Council, Grow Exeter and other business-centred organisations to try and achieve this. It’s about creating that critical mass that I was talking about earlier. Enough people pulling in the same direction will, eventually, make a significant impact and also become an example for others to follow. Sometimes people just need others to follow rather than being the first one (or first few) to do something. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just human nature.

KIRSTY: I think that people find it really hard to find the energy to care. In principle, almost everyone would say that caring for the environment is something that they are interested in doing. But the consistent, sometimes, hard choices that actually go into making that a reality often put people off. Sadly, convenience is a stronger motivator than principle when it comes to caring for the environment.

SARA: Also, I think that, for some people. the perception of caring for the environment is that only ‘hippies’ do it. Actually, I think we are at the crest of a super-exciting wave at the moment where ‘being green’ is starting to have mass appeal. That is a REALLY exciting development and, if that trend continues, will certainly be a major factor in significant progress being made in the fight to preserving nature, protecting wildlife and making this earth a healthier, more sustainable place to live.


Well, with movements like Plastic Free Exeter, I think the future is bright for Exeter. Here’s to making it a greener, cleaner place to live and work!


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