College lecturer and former Plastic-Free Falmouth champion Kirstie Edwards is gearing up to take on the role of Mayor of Falmouth next year. West Country Voices spoke to her about her career to date and her plans for the future.
Kirstie Edwards’s CV isn’t short on variety. Having made Falmouth her home at the age of 18, she’s carved out a career in academia, raised a family of six, lost years to illness, led Plastic-Free Falmouth (PFF) to reduce single-use plastic in the area, and become Deputy Mayor.
Her year as Mayor will start in May 2023 and she’s already thinking of serving on Cornwall Council and, maybe, beyond.
Originally Kirstie worked as a lecturer at Falmouth College of Arts until health issues meant she had to stop. She explains:
“I’ve had Still’s Disease since I was a child – it’s a rare form of rheumatoid arthritis – and my health took a dive, so I had to give up work. I ended up being unwell and isolated for about six years, then an occupational therapist suggested I do some volunteering to try to reconnect to the world.
“So six or seven years back I started just walking and picking up litter, then I organised a beach clean. Loads of people turned up, and I started doing that regularly.”
Her pivotal moment came five years ago after a family trip to Perranporth. After four hours of picking up rubbish following a storm, and making very little difference, she realised beach cleaning wasn’t the answer.
As luck would have it, Surfers Against Sewage were looking for someone to co-ordinate their new Plastic-Free Coastlines project, which developed into the Plastic-Free Communities scheme. Kirstie offered to take that on, and it grew from there.
She says: “I realised I had all the skills and a lot of the knowledge to be able to put it all together, even though I wasn’t a scientist. But because of my background in communications and culture services, all those skills translated really well.
“I knew a lot of people, I had kids so getting into schools wasn’t difficult, I used a contact to get into the council, and it spiralled from there. In fact, I’ve learnt so much in this last five to six years that I’ve just been recruited by the University of Exeter to do research on the circular economy.”
Under Kirstie’s guidance, Plastic-Free Coastlines developed into community groups all over the area, running educational projects in schools and in the community, campaigning to reduce usage of single-use plastic.
She also set up her own community interest company (CIC), Seas for the Future, which involved using non-recyclable plastic, grinding it up to make jewellery and then making batons as a building material.
“I ran that as co-director for two to three years,” she explains, “but it was impossible to upscale without investment, and I didn’t want to be stuck for six days a week in a smelly industrial workshop in full PPE, chopping up and melting plastic.
“It did show how materials should stay in production, and how we need to rethink how we view waste, but I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Kirstie also stepped back from PFF in June this year. “We’ve effected a lot of change,” she says, “and it felt the right point to assess what we’ve done and bring in some new energy.”
She’s now focusing on her role as town councillor and Deputy Mayor, before she dons the chain of office as Mayor of Falmouth in May next year.
“I originally stood for election because I felt I knew more about the environment than the people making the decisions,” she says. “The logical step to make change was to be one of the decision-makers, so I stood on an environmental platform, got elected, and became Deputy Mayor.
“When I was elected the majority – that’s staff, other councillors and the community – were delighted. But there are always going to be a few within the establishment who think ‘who is this woman, what right does she have to come in and start changing things?’
“It shouldn’t be this hard!” she adds. “I’m 44 years old with adult children! In Falmouth we do have a lot more women and younger people on the council than is generally the case, but it can be difficult as you’re often a lone voice in meetings.”
One result of Kirstie’s election has been to raise the profile of environmental values on the agenda.
“We’ve done a carbon audit, a strategic overview of our input and output, and everything we do now has to have sustainability and ethical procurement in terms of planet and people,” she explains. “The key is to get ideas off paper and into tangible action, and I hope more people will come forward and do that.”
For now, Kirstie’s looking forward to bringing in change as Falmouth’s youngest female Mayor.
“It makes a difference who the figurehead is because it’s about reputation and how you’re perceived,” she says. “The number of people that come up to me when I’m swimming or walking and say, “It’s amazing, I’m so glad we’ve got someone like you involved in this.” There’s a definite will for councillors to look more like the people they represent.”
As for environmental projects, Kirstie’s determined to carry on as she began.
“What I’ve come to realise is that there’s always more to do, so already I’m thinking of becoming a county councillor. Cornwall Council is in charge of a phenomenal range of things, and I need to be there, and beyond that maybe I need to try to become an MP.”
Her aim as the town’s Mayor is simple: “I’d like to shout louder about the really great progress in Falmouth. We have a phenomenal number of volunteers, so I’d like to champion what’s already happening and the people who are doing great things in the town.”
The most pressing problem Kirstie sees here in Falmouth is the lack of investment in green infrastructure.
“I’d say that’s a county-wide issue,” she explains. “We don’t have the infrastructure to do a lot of things the way we used to, and we have some awesome companies which can’t grow enough to make a really big impact because there’s no investment.
“And there’s a secondary challenge of greenwashing: a lot of people are trying to do the right thing but struggle to work out what is right and what isn’t.”
Finally, what are Kirstie’s words of wisdom on how we can all improve the environment?
“Be kind all the time, not just to each other, but to the animals around us and the planet. Kindness is a concept that goes way beyond human-to-human contact. And you cannot do this stuff alone, so teamwork is vital.
“That’s one of the things I’m so incredibly proud about with PFF: that it created a community of people who would never have come into contact had it not been for that campaign. They all had this one thing in common: we cared about the state of the environment, and wanted to do something about it.
“I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve all managed together: that’s the approach that can, and will, change the world.”