Where Hebden Bridge leads, the supermarkets follow...

Last year a group of campaigners tried to make Hebden Bridge a plastic bag-free zone. But have they been successful? Chris Bond reports.

AS Marks and Spencer took the plaudits yesterday for its decision to charge food shoppers 5p for every plastic bag they use, you could have been forgiven for thinking the retail giant had stumbled upon some kind of revolutionary eco-strategy. And while they have set an example for other big stores to follow, they aren't the only ones encouraging people to ditch their plastic bags.

Six months ago, shops in the West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge agreed to stop using plastic bags, in a bid to make the town more environmentally friendly. Mandi Paramor started the campaign after reading

about a similar scheme in the Devon village of Modbury. "I thought if they can do it, then why can't we?"

Along with three fellow "bag ladies", Louise Marix-Evans, Kat Birch and Emma Leeming, she set about turning the town into a plastic bag-free zone.

"The vast majority of shopkeepers in Hebden Bridge are environmentally aware, so it was a bit like pushing an open door to convert most of them.

"But there were half-a-dozen who were adamant they were not being told what to do," she says.

Hebden Bridge Co-op helped to get the ball rolling by giving away free, Fair Trade, cotton bags to every household living in and around the town. And since the campaign started last September Mandi reckons it's had a significant impact.

"If you look around the town now you hardly see any plastic bags. People come shopping with their own bags, while some use holdalls, or rucksacks."

Plastic bags were never banned in the town, instead, local shops were encouraged to replace them with so-called "bio bags", made from corn starch or organic cotton.

"It's been an interesting last six months," says Mandi, an ambulance technician, "because when we started there was a small core of shopkeepers who wanted to keep the plastic bags because they thought it was what customers wanted."

She admits that compromises have been made along the way, with some people re-using old plastic bags rather than throwing them away. "We wanted to be completely plastic bag-free, but then we realised that every small step we take is a step in the right direction."

Around 60 per cent of shops in Hebden Bridge now don't use plastic bags, a further 35 per cent offer some kind of alternative, while the rest refuse to climb on board the green bandwagon. What's interesting, though, is that plastic bags have become an "under the counter service" in the town, with some people almost too embarrassed to ask for them.

Hebden Bridge has long been associated with the arts and alternative lifestyles, but can similar schemes catch on elsewhere? "It's a ripple effect and what we've done is help raise awareness about the problem of what we should do with our plastic waste in general," says Mandi, pointing out that more than 140 towns across the UK are following their example.

One of the problems created by the campaign is shopkeepers are struggling to get rid of their plastic bags, something that's been hampered since the closure of Ekko, a plastic recycling factory based in the town.

Tony Preston, chairman of Hebden Bridge Business Association, is among the majority who support the campaign but believes there needs to be more support, either from the Government, or the private sector.

"People want to reduce their carbon footprint, but towns that want to do what we're doing have to do it without any help."

Tony says local businesses need to be able to offer affordable alternatives to customers, something which requires strategic planning. "The reality is that if you're running a business it can become difficult, because it all comes down to cost."

Despite such concerns he's been impressed at the effect the campaign has had on the town.

"I don't think we can say that carrier bags have been outlawed in Hebden Bridge, but most people have jumped on board.

"And credit must go to Mandi and the team of 'bag ladies' for keeping the message going, because most of the people who signed up to the scheme in principle are still involved."

Now he wants to see a sustainable infrastructure put in place to allow similar eco-schemes to flourish elsewhere.

"We as a town have done it but we can only pass on ideas, so other places have to start from scratch, and we need to get the big supermarkets involved because there's only so much a few thousand small shops can do on their own."

But although it's still early days, Mandi says she's proud of what the town has achieved.

"Every time I see someone with a straw bag, or a cotton one, I can see that we've made a difference. It's a small step, but it's a positive one."

Plastic bags – The facts

Around 13 billion plastic bags are given out free to UK shoppers every year

They take 1,000 years to decay

On average we use 167 a year

One in every 200 bags is recycled