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A Woman, a Village and a War on Plastic Bags

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

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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.

"If you're going to show them a problem," she said, "you've got to show them a solution."

So for weeks before the meeting, she had scoured the Internet researching alternatives to plastic bags. She found a British company selling BioBags, fully biodegradable and compostable bags made from cornstarch, which look and feel almost exactly like plastic.

She ordered a batch of them and quietly enlisted an ally -- the local butcher. She asked him to test the cornstarch bags. If he found them strong enough for his fresh, juicy meats, that might help persuade any skeptics.

At the meeting, Hosking said, all eyes turned to the butcher. When he put his hand up in favor of the plastic-bag ban, everybody else followed -- a unanimous vote.

So last May 1, Modbury became Europe's first plastic-bag-free town.

Overnight, carrying plastic bags became as socially acceptable as swearing in church. The florist tied bouquets, the baker wrapped bread and the grocery stores sold everything from olives to ice cream in bags and other small containers, all made of cornstarch or paper.

Adam Searle of Mackgill's Delicatessen said he and other merchants buy cornstarch bags and containers from a British wholesaler. The bags cost about 10 cents each -- compared with less than a penny for plastic -- a cost that merchants pass along to customers, who have rarely complained.

Searle said he sells only a handful of bags these days because most locals now carry reusable cloth or canvas shopping bags -- a key goal of the Modbury campaign.

When the ban began, Modbury became an instant sensation and attracted reporters and camera crews from around the world. Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Hosking, and she was invited to a ceremony with Queen Elizabeth II.

Hosking said that 120 British cities and towns are exploring a ban on plastic bags, and nine have already banned them. She said two towns in Hawaii are about to follow the Modbury model.

Officials from China and Colombia have come to Modbury, and Hosking and her allies have received inquiries from dozens of countries around the world -- many via the town's Web site ( http://www.plasticbagfree.com), which Hosking created and maintains.

This week, to mark the one-year anniversary of the bag ban, Modbury is planning a big beach cleanup -- and a new campaign. Whatever item of trash residents find the most of, they will ban next. Hosking suspects it's going to be plastic water bottles, and she is already thinking about ways to promote reusable cups for tap water.

"She's very enthusiastic," Mandy Rolt, proprietor of a local gift shop that sells recycled shopping bags, says of Hosking. "She's such a likable girl. We're all behind her 100 percent."

Over a glass of wine in the timeworn Exeter Inn, Hosking said she is uncomfortable in the media spotlight.

"I'm not an eco-warrior," she said. "We just did a little thing that worked. And, blimey, it's rocketed around the world."

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