Action Nan!

Pat Smith All photos copyright Victoria Carpenter

The Final Straw battle is won – but Pat’s fight against plastic pollution goes on, reports Jane Leigh.

“It bothered me enough to make me decide I wasn’t just going to be cross, but actively try to do something about it.”

Cornwall grandmother Pat Smith has made a name for herself as a plastic pollution and climate change activist. Now the 73-year-old is living up to her ‘Action Nan’ nickname, by upping the fight to beat plastic pollution along the coast.

Pat, who lives near Charlestown, was inspired to take action after seeing a film about plastic pollution.

She says:

“My background was as a geography teacher, although I’ve also been a farmer’s wife and now run a holiday cottage business. I think teaching geography helped a lot with my understanding of climate change, and I’ve always been passionate about environmental matters.”

The catalyst for her activities came in 2017 when her son invited her to watch the film A Plastic Ocean. She explains:

“That was my wake-up call. Film-maker Jo Ruxton and her crew had intended to make a film about blue whales, but found themselves in the Pacific surrounded by what we now know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“It’s a gyre, an enormous floating mass of plastic and horrible emulsified fats. The film turned into one about plastic, rather than whales, and the whole thing was my first experience of what a problem was looming for us.

“It bothered me enough to make me decide I wasn’t just going to be cross, but actively try to do something about it.”

Pat’s timing couldn’t have been better.

“The lucky break for me was that this was March 2017,” she explains.

“I tried to think of something insignificant that people use and discard every day but don’t give much thought to, and I came up with the plastic straw.

“With several volunteer helpers I started The Final Straw Cornwall. And in the autumn of 2017, just as I was ready to launch the official campaign, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II hit the tv screens: that raised public awareness, so people were in a good frame of mind to get behind the project and support it.”

The Final Straw campaign started in Cornwall, although it’s since grown to include groups in other parts of the country. Pat says:

“We decided to go out to businesses in the county, and we got about 600 to sign up and say they’d no longer use plastic straws, either by switching to paper or giving up straws altogether.

“The rest is history,” she adds. “The campaign worked well, and was picked up by Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay. And the ban was brought in on 1 October 2020, with not just plastic straws but also plastic stirrers and cotton bud sticks no longer being permitted to be made out of plastic in this country.”

That success has spurred Pat on to keep fighting to reduce plastic waste.

“The Final Straw is still going,” she explains, “but our biggest problem is lack of funds. We have a lovely team of volunteers, but they can’t do things for nothing, so we’re frantically writing funding bids to try to get the show back on the road, to extend the campaign to single-use plastic generally, but mostly packaging.”

Bringing the point home, in May 2022 Pat took part in The Big Plastic Count, run by Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic, when people were asked to record how much plastic they threw away in one week. She says:

“I personally was horrified at how many pieces I threw away, and the results of the Big Plastic Count are now available so people can see the extent of the problem, and hopefully act for change.”

Alongside her Final Straw work, Pat has maintained a role as an avid beach cleaner.

“I live near the sea at Charlestown,” she says, “and I’m always picking stuff up off the beach, so I decided to try to raise a bit more awareness of the problem of plastic in the ocean.

Beach clean team

“I vowed to do a beach clean a week in 2018 and wrote a blog about each one, at different beaches all round Cornwall, plus a couple in Devon. A local newspaper picked it up, then the nationals got hold of it and I was across virtually every newspaper. I had lots of interviews, I went on the One Show, I was interviewed by Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, and The Times ran a feature on me and a little video in a series called Amazing Humans. It really was one of those things that came completely out of the blue and bowled you over.

“Since then, I’ve set up a litter picking group in Charlestown called Charlestown Chums – we meet up regularly, and from starting with just three of us, we now get 15 to 20 volunteers coming every month to clean up the village. And a bit further along the coast, I’ve also set up the Mevagissey Clean Team which does the same.”

Pat says: “The litter picking groups have been great because people say it makes them realise how much litter is out there – they just don’t notice it till they start cleaning up. It changes their behaviour, so they start picking litter up themselves. And the social side is very important: we always end with a drink and a chat, and that’s a good way to see how people’s attitudes change once they’ve done a few litter picks.”

Looking ahead, what does Pat think the future holds?

“The only thing that’s going to make enough of a change is for the government to take action with legislation,” she says. “They proved they could do it with the straws and with plastic bags in supermarkets. It isn’t difficult.”

Nik Sherrif, Viki Carpenter and Pat Smith of the Final Straw Campaign, Cornwall

The Big Plastic Count Results report says that only 12 per cent of what people put out for recycling is likely to be recycled. Pat feels that gives the public a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card’, thinking that if they’re recycling, they’re doing enough.

“But I think this government has to take control of the waste we produce,” she adds. “And they should have a deposit return scheme like they have on the continent. That just seems a no-brainer to me.”

She’d also like to see legislation to tax those who produce the plastic, and investment in alternatives. So why isn’t that happening?

“Unfortunately, big oil companies and big money invest in political campaigning, and it’s not in their interests to get us to use less plastic. I think it’s very unfair that we as consumers are made to feel the responsibility for the damage plastic is doing because we’re consuming it.”

A grandmother to four children, Pat views the future with trepidation.

“In reality, I’m terrified”, she says, “because I can see what’s happening to the weather worldwide and the extreme temperatures we’re having. It’s all very well looking back at 1976 and how wonderful it was – but when you get the glaciers melting at the rate they are, and sea levels rising, then I’m afraid civilization as we know it is not going to last.

“I feel guilty because plastic was only really invented in my lifetime, just after the war, so my generation has produced all this waste. I try to do my bit by raising awareness of the problems and hoping that we’ll get more people to realise what they need to do, rather than just thinking it’s too big and too challenging.”

Ultimately, she’d like others to follow her example and take action, even if that’s only to write to your MP and demand they vote for legislation. She concludes:

“Things are going to change; they have to change. But standing idly by, keeping quiet and not doing anything at all is not okay.”