What does it mean to go 'plastic free' in Chepstow?

Photograph of a square in Chepstow


The Welsh town of Chepstow is the most recent to declare itself 'plastic free'. PAUL MILES reflects on the subsequent media frenzy, the community's unwavering enthusiasm, and their long-term goals

There are now 80 percent fewer plastic bags in the ocean around our shores than there used to be.

The small Welsh market town of Chepstow launched its ‘plastic-free’ status with a banner made of plastic - and the world’s media had a field day.

Tim Melville is the coordinator of Transition Chepstow, a community grassroots group promoting the circular economy, part of the Transition Towns network.

He confirmed: “It’s the best thing that’s happened to us. We made headlines from New York to Hong Kong. We couldn’t have asked for better press coverage for our plastic free community.” 

But now it seems this town of 8,000 inhabitants, just inside the Welsh border, is courting further media mockery.

Recycled materials

Later this month ‘Plastic-free Chepstow’ will display sculptures as part of the town’s summer arts trail. They are made from plastic. Won’t tabloids rejoice to run headlines such as ‘Plastic-free Chepstow promotes its plastic-free status with plastic sculptures’?

The full story is that the sculptures have been made by local primary school children using litter from the town’s streets and waste plastic from businesses. 

There are now 80 percent fewer plastic bags in the ocean around our shores than there used to be.

Charlotte Moore, co-ordinator of the primary school project, explained that these business “have since adopted more sustainable alternatives such as paper straws.” 

Moore pointed out that plastic-free status - as recognised by the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage - is not about banning all plastic, it is about reducing the amount of single-use plastics, such as plastic drinks bottles, stirrers and coffee cups. 

Plastic-free communities 

Surfers Against Sewage, a Cornwall-based charity that recently received high profile support from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Harry and Meghan), sets criteria that a town must achieve before it can claim to be a plastic-free community.

These include securing the cooperation of the town council (which must agree, as far as possible, to make its own offices and events free of single use plastic), and persuading a number of local retailers to remove at least three single-use-plastic items from their shelves.

There are currently over 300 SAS-certified plastic-free communities in Britain. 

As part of this endeavour, Chepstow’s newly revived town market is promoted as ‘plastic free’. The market, organised by community interest company, Cotyledon, runs on the second Sunday of every month.

Transition Chepstow encourages stall holders to avoid single-use plastic packaging. 

Innovative substitutions 

A man selling glassware wraps his handicrafts in tissue paper rather than bubblewrap. A neighbouring stall selling tasty Indian takeaway food serves portions in containers made from compressed plant material such as maize husks, and offers wooden forks instead of plastic ones.

Ruth Davies of the award-winning Cwm Farm, sells artisan charcuterie from rare breed pigs and avoids all plastic packaging. She said: “I don’t believe in plastic,” while wrapping a length of pork and laverbread salami in paper:

“Plastic would make the salami sweat for one thing. And when you see how much plastic is in the ocean…Well, we don’t need it do we?” 

The BBC TV series Blue Planet has finally persuaded many that single use plastic is an abomination. But is it all too little too late?

Moving forward

Surfers Against Sewage estimates that there are 5,000 items of plastic pollution for every mile of British coastline.

However, Melville is optimistic. “We’re on a journey. It all needs to become mainstream. Yes, at the moment, it could be argued that this is a token gesture, but Chepstow was [one of] the first town[s] in Wales where shopkeepers stopped freely giving out plastic bags and this led to the 5p charge in Wales which has now been adopted by the rest of the UK.

"There are now 80 percent fewer plastic bags in the ocean around our shores than there used to be,” he said triumphantly, before eating another (wooden) forkful of spicy dhal from his vegware container. “You have to start somewhere.” 

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Paul Miles is a regular contributor to The Ecologist. 

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