Published: 08:00, 11 January 2019
| Updated: 11:29, 11 January 2019
A seaside town in Kent has become the first to be awarded 'plastic-free' status by a marine conservation charity.
Campaign group Plastic Free Whitstable was established last January, by residents who were keen to reduce the amount of single-use plastic used by the town's businesses and residents.
Now, a year later, the town has been given 'plastic-free community' status by charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), in recognition of the work it has done to reduce throwaway plastics.
Whitstable is only the second place in the south-east to be awarded plastic-free status, after Ovingdean in Brighton - and is the very first in Kent. While 427 communities across the country have registered plastic-free campaign groups with SAS, only 44 have so far received the award.
To gain the prestigious status, Plastic Free Whitstable carried out a range of tasks laid out by SAS - from engaging local schools and community centres, to gaining council backing, organising beach cleans and persuading local businesses to stop using plastic straws and cutlery.
Group co-ordinator Lynette Aitken said: "Reducing single-use plastics is important because they're thrown away, creating waste, and that waste has nowhere to go. It ends up in the sea.
"It poses a danger to animals - it can kill and harm them when they get stuck in plastic and eat it.
"It's also a problem for people. The rubbish looks horrible on beaches, and it also breaks down, and is in the water and the fish people eat. Some photos from beaches around the world look like they are made purely of waste.
"It's just too much. We've got to reverse it. It's a huge job, but you have to begin somewhere. You have to start by raising awareness amongst people and encouraging people to switch to sustainable alternatives.
"It's all about what we can do as individuals. And by raising awareness we can multiply that, and encourage others.
"So far, 15 local businesses are either completely free of single-use plastics or have given up at least three and replaced them with alternatives. This includes cups, straws, condiment sachets, bottles, cutlery, take-away packaging.
"Many offer to fill people’s water bottles for free and one provides a refill service for cleaning products and shampoos.
"Others offer discounts to people who bring their own cups. Some are working with their suppliers to reduce the amount of plastic they use, and one toy shop stocks virtually no plastic toys."
The group has also held monthly beach cleans with the local Marine Environment Group, taken part in community events such as Whitstable Harbour Day and the Oyster Festival, and has run educational sessions for schools, Guides groups and the WI.
But their mission is far from over.
"Our next step is to see how we move forward," said Ms Aitken. "There's a lot more to do to work with local businesses and to help other towns to gain plastic-free status.
"We hope other people will read about what has happened in Whitstable, and it will inspire them to do the same in their towns."
Plastic Free Whitstable has thanked the community for getting behind its campaign.
Cllr Bernadette Fisher, who is the group's representative on the city council, says: “We’re delighted to have received this award from SAS. I’d like to congratulate everyone involved, especially the businesses and community groups that have put so much of themselves into it.
"The SAS framework has given us a focus for our activities and helped us draw in the wider community to the campaign. We will never be totally plastic-free, but the people of our lovely coastal town have shown commitment to eliminating plastic waste from our environment.”
Plastic-free campaigns have begun at several other locations in Kent, in towns such as Faversham, Herne Bay, Dover, Deal and Folkestone.
To find out more, visit the SAS website.