A Woman, a Village and a War on Plastic Bags

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who is changing the way people work, think, consume or create? Innovators, a regular feature beginning today, will profile some of the world's ground-breakers and contrarians, problem solvers and restless minds.

MODBURY, England -- Rebecca Hosking's moment, when a happy English farm girl cried tears that changed her life, came on a speck of sugar-white beach in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

"All you could smell was death," Hosking recalled, sitting snugly in a 600-year-old pub in her rainy home town, which has been transformed by her epiphany two years ago on Midway Atoll.

The beach on Midway, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, was covered with thousands of dead albatrosses rotting in the tropical sun. In their split-open bellies, the BBC wildlife film producer said, she saw the plastic that had killed them: cigarette lighters, pens, toys, pill bottles, knives and forks, golf balls and toothbrushes.

The waves were a thick stew of dead birds that had eaten bright-colored plastic pollution they thought was food. Hosking put down her camera and waded into the waves to try to help the birds still alive. She scooped up a young one, which found the strength to bite her before dying in her arms.

"I just broke down crying because I thought she was going to make it," said Hosking, 34, rubbing the small scar on her hand. "That day has never left me."

Hosking returned to her home town, a village of 1,600 people on the Devon coast in southwestern England, disturbed and restless. She finished her film about ocean pollution and often spent her days in a wet suit snorkeling in the cool British sea.

What she saw disgusted her: plastic bags, thousands of them, from grocery stores and restaurants and every other kind of business, covering the bay floor like leaves on an autumn lawn.

Hosking, who had never been a campaigner or an environmental activist, knew she couldn't fix Midway. But suddenly she felt compelled to do something for Modbury.

In April 2007, several months after returning from the Pacific, she called a meeting at a local art gallery. She invited all 43 local merchants, most of whom she'd known since she was a baby. She tempted them with wine and food, and 37 showed up.

She showed them her film, poured out a handful of Hawaiian sand full of bright-colored bits of plastic pollution, and described the filthy bay floor three miles from their shops. Then she hit them with her plan: Modbury should ban plastic bags.

Hosking knew it was a gamble in a conservative, old-fashioned country village more into fox hunting than carbon trading. She was sure her old friends would be sympathetic, but only if it wouldn't hurt their businesses.

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