Pat Smith – from Final Straw Cornwall speaks with us about how one person can make a huge impact on clearing waste
by Aimee Rigby/28th-Deecember-2020
Okay, so thank you for joining us on Zero Waste Kode today. Would you like to tell our audience a bit about who you are and why people call you action nan?
So, my name is Pat Smith and I come from St Austell in Cornwall. I run abusy holiday cottage businesses as my own. And I am one of those people who’s always busy doing something. Action Nan came about because I’ve done quite a few sort of goal driven things in my time like cycle from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, walked around the whole coast of Cornwall in one go on my own.
And I’m always sort of out for a bit of an adventure. Action nan, as most people might recognise her was really born out of deciding that I really needed to do something about the single use plastic, particularly on our beaches.
So, in 2018, I undertook to set myself my own goal to clean a beach a week, in my area and on holiday. So, it took me into Devon as well. But the difference was that I actually wrote up a blog about every beach clean, I did; what I found, and trying to highlight the various different components of what I found, and how they get into the ocean and end up on our beaches.
So, what made you actually start the final straw campaign?
Well, in March 2017, my son asked me what I wanted to do for mothering Sunday. And I’d seen that there was this film coming up at Falmouth Poly, called A Plastic Ocean. And it was followed by a Q&A with the producer, Joe Ruxton.
So, I thought I was starting to hear a few rumbles about the plastic problem through my sustainability work. But I thought, actually, this film was being made about plastic in the ocean and accompanied by someone who would have been and seen it first-hand. So, I was really interested in the Q&A afterwards. But I must say that the film itself shocked me to the core about the level of plastic pollution all over the world, which until that point, I had no idea existed. So, I felt very unsettled, I really kept going back to it; kept going back to it. And suddenly doing some research, I discovered that some statistics that were 1950 to 2015. And that was pretty much my lifetime, because I was born in 1948. And suddenly, I was overcome by a great sense of responsibility for being one of the generations that had contributed, unwittingly I may say, to this vast problem that’s now threatening our marine life all over the world. And I couldn’t let it rest. And I decided that I was going to try and do something about it. And I had a chat with a few friends, and we’re sort of mulling stuff over one day, and we just said: “Oh, great. What about the final straw,” and straws being a very significant feature of what I was picking up on beaches, and also something that people could quite happily live their lives without. So, we weren’t challenging them too much to do without a straw, but actually, would be something that would raise awareness of all sorts of other plastic as well.
Is there anything about plastic straws that make them particularly harmful to our marine environment?
The thing about straws was that at that moment in time, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but most people have, there was this very graphic image of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. And there was some video of some people who rescued it and removed the straw from its nose. And that was kind of one of those images that stays with people that they thought how awful it was. Now, I dare say that was a very random isolated happening, but it struck a chord with people. And when I started beach cleaning plastic straws, were everywhere, and always part of everything that I was picking up. And so, it was just one of those things. It’s a small thing. But actually, it was a significant amount of the problem because they’re very light. They whizz down the drains and they go out in the streams, get washed out to sea, and they float for quite a long time. So yeah, they weren’t a big part of the problem, but they were an easily recognisable parts of the problem.
Pat Smith cleaning her local beach in Cornwall near St Austell
So, what was your reaction when plastic straws were ultimately banned in England?
I was absolutely over the moon, because that is the one thing that we were setting out to highlight. There’s no way on earth that I’m going to take any sort of credit for it happening. But I think we chose our final straw campaign was actually called the final straw Cornwall. And we decided to keep it local. Because we want, we felt that people living in Cornwall, virtually surrounded by sea; most people are out on the beaches at some point. And they were able to see the straws for themselves.
So, we felt it was a thing that Cornwall people, people living in Cornwall, would connect with quite simply. In fact, also, if you drop a straw in Cornwall, because we’re so close to the sea, it doesn’t take very long for it to get there. And most people who live here love the place, and they want to look after it. So, we felt that Cornwall was going to be an ideal place to start. So, we you know, we approached businesses, because we felt businesses were going to be more able to influence more people more quickly than targeting individuals. So, we approached the businesses. And once we’ve shown them that it was probably very easy to save money by not serving straws at all, or switch to paper, and they were going to be feeling like they were doing the right thing. So, we were overwhelmed by how many people immediately took it up. And I think by the end of say, 2018, you would hardly find a plastic straw being served anywhere in Cornwall, except maybe the major chains like McDonald’s and KFC and things like that because they took a while to get their parent companies in America to agree to do it.
So, are there any other sort of single use plastics in the hospitality industry that need to go such as plastic stirrers or plastic takeaway coffee lids?
Of course, the list is endless. And what we found is a lot of the businesses that took up the no straw campaign then started to look at other items of single use plastic in their businesses and things like Styrofoam containers for takeaways, single use coffee cups and stirrers were banned with the straws, so they aren’t going to be around anymore as were cotton bud sticks because they were the really sharp things. And I know it was a straw up the turtle’s nose, but those cotton bud sticks were really sharp- you could have pierced all kinds of things with the end of those, so they were quite nasty. And yeah, so to answer your question, many things even we’re looking at the moment cigarettes because cigarette butt filters contain plastic, and most people are completely unaware of that.
Okay, so just going on from that; so plastic straws have been banned. What’s next, what is Final Straw doing at the moment, so like cigarette butts?
When we had to regroup after we more or less decided we finished our job. And shortly after that, the ban was passed by Michael Gove, but it didn’t actually come in for in fact, it was not due to come in for another year and they brought it forward. So, we decided, you know was that the end of the day for Final Straw Cornwall? But the little group of us and they were only ever about six, which was amazing that could achieve so much with such a small group of people. But we were all you know, highly motivated and dedicated to do what we did. And we said, “well, no, because we’ve got, you know, a really good band of followers and a voice.” And because my beach cleaning story went viral, it was just incredible. There’s been a lot of little videos made about me. And I think we were looking the other day and over the time of the year since I did it, that we’ve had about 300 million views of various little interviews that I’ve done
I was just scrolling through Instagram the other day, and I saw a picture of you come up, and I thought, oh, maybe that’s because I follow final straw, but it was actually from a completely different account. And it was a picture of you, that said, “This 70 year old grandmother spent an entire year cleaning up 52 beaches in the UK. Drop a like for her.” And can you guess how many likes it got?
It has 18,038 likes.
Above images; Pat in a conference with their Final Straw banner. Pat, holding a selection of plastics commonly found on the beach. A selection of different waste products they find on the beach in a show case that educates the public about beach waste.
Oh my gosh. But yeah, those little videos made by people like Bored Panda and things like that, and Bright Side, things I’ve never heard of, but they go around the world. And I’ve done interviews with so many people, just this one story about me picking up litter for a year, seemed to capture people’s imagination. And I think because I was so old, and that interview and the photos you had with the amazing photographer called Harry Borden was sent down by The Times. And he did this amazing shoot of beautiful pics of me. And yeah, we’ve used them a lot.
So, what advice would you give to someone who feels sort of as an individual that they are unable to make a difference?
Well, I’ll give them one single piece of advice, which I think properly catalysed me into getting on and doing what I did. In part of my research, I read a quote. And this was from the American actress Lily Tomlin and the quote went,
“I always thought somebody should do something about that. And then I realised I am somebody.”
And I decided that I was somebody. And if all the somebodies got together, there’s somebody who’s could make a huge difference. So that is my advice. If you see something that really bothers you, you can decide to do something about it.
Even if it’s your decision to stay not eating meat and go vegetarian and that sort of thing. You can make a difference to all kinds of things by deciding to change your behaviour and your habit. You don’t have to go full on, like I did, you can just go gently, you can just do it to please yourself. But inaction, moaning and groaning, always thinking as happens a lot in our society, that somebody else’s job to do things. When I’m out on the beach picking up litter, particularly when I started and it wasn’t quite such a thing as it is now. People used to say to me, “why are you doing that? That’s the council’s job.” And I’m just saying, “Well, I’m afraid it bothers me. And I want to do it because I care about it. And I know the harm it can do. And also, the Council have many, many calls on their very limited budget. And afraid picking up your litter that you’ve dropped is probably not top priority at the moment.”
So, my advice is actually do it. Just do it. Be the somebody and feel good about it. And know that you know, together, we can make a difference to the problems that I’m afraid that a lot of human beings are causing in the world.
That’s lovely. So finally, how can our listeners get involved with final straw and donate if they would like to?
Well, we have got a website called www.finalstrawcornwall.co.uk. And we have got a donate button on there. We do not have any funding of any kind from any anywhere. So, everything we do is purely digging into our own pockets mostly. But until recently, obviously we were a lot more active.
The whole of the COVID thing, the lockdowns, I’m afraid that in this moment in time, single-use plastic is not the forefront of anybody’s mind. In fact, most of us who are involved in activism on this are really, really pulling our hair out because we’ve not reduced plastic, we’ve increased it dramatically. And we are picking up tonnes and tonnes of discarded masks and gloves, which have been used for protection. And it’s added to the problem, not reduced it. So, at the moment, I’m just carrying on with my fellow workers just doing beach cleans on our own, because we can’t gather. I mean, we used to have wonderful social occasions where we’d all get together for a little pick. But at the moment, we’re not allowed. So, we’ve had to really cut down on what we’re doing in groups. But it doesn’t mean to say we’ve gone away, we just put ourselves on hold for a moment, and we’re just busying away doing what we can. But obviously, if you give us a like and follow us on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, we will be putting out gatherings and meetings and things you can get involved in when we feel the time is right.
That’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much Pat for coming on the podcast. That was really inspiring.
Thank you. Yeah, that’s brilliant. And as I say, you have trouble shutting me up.