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Muddy Meets: Kirstie Edwards, Plastic Free Falmouth

Kirstie Edwards, surfer, paddleboarder and Plastic-free Falmouth champion talked to Muddy about how she is turning the tide on ocean plastic waste.

Cornwall is absolutely stuffed full of amazing local businesses doing interesting things, socially, economically and culturally – and so many of those businesses are created by awesome women. You just need to know where to look. Inspired by the themes of International Women’s Day, we’ve done some digging which has led to some refreshing chats… here are some of the women we spoke to.

Kirstie Edwards is a bit of a plastic-free wonder woman, receiving a community hero award for her efforts to protect the local environment. One of the managers of Plastic Free Falmouth, a Surfers Against Sewage initiative to set up plastic-free communities across the UK, Kirstie also runs a small not for profit local charity to fund the voluntary work they do in the wider community, such as installing water taps across Falmouth and funding beach cleans. A surfer, paddleboarder and wild swimmer, Kirstie spends much of her time cleaning up ocean waste and turning it into beautiful jewellery.

So why rubbish? Where did it all start?

My working life started as a lecturer/academic at Falmouth where I specialised in communication and cultural theory. Being chronically ill and invisibly disabled with a life-limiting disease (Kirstie has a rare kind of rheumatoid arthritis called stills disease that causes widespread inflammation around her joints and organs), and living with chronic pain, when my health dictated that I give up traditional work, I was in a bad place. I needed to find a way to get back into feeling useful. I started by getting outside and picking up rubbish. That helped my mental state, which in turn helps manage the pain. I started getting involved with Surfers Against Sewage, doing beach cleans.

And now?

I enjoy connecting with people, and being part of society, giving back if you will. I lead several community groups and campaigns locally in my home town, including Plastic Free Falmouth and Plastic Free Cornwall. I’m a Keep Britain Tidy litter hero ambassador, running beach cleans and litter picks. I set up a community interest company called Seas for the Future that helps to fund the various projects we work on. I also speak in schools, give presentations to community groups and help the council with policy – and I do it all as a volunteer!

Sounds busy – what’s this I hear about some rubbish jewellery?!

So that’s the Plastic Oceanic business that I run with my business partner Dan (he has the same surname, but we’re definitely not related or married to each other!). I love it when I wear one of our necklaces and people admire it, and I can say that it literally used to be rubbish we found on the beach. It’s definitely a conversation starter.

We recognised a real lack of products that used the unrecyclable waste we were collecting on beach cleans, so Dan came up with a way to process the broken fishing boxes, wrappers and dirty old waste we couldn’t recycle and we now run a business that makes ocean waste into beautiful jewellery. We both do all parts of the business from collecting and processing the waste to making the plant-based resin and moulding, although Dan tends to break anything IT based if he goes near it so I manage that side of things!

We have grand plans to expand into a homeware range including wall lamps and tabletops, alongside developing our industrial division, making functional ‘invisible’ items (think bollards, rail sleepers, roof tiles, etc) out of the waste that’s not quite so pretty. In theory as long as you can make it in a mould, we can do it. 2020 is the year of the prototype for us. We both have a passion to change the way we do things in Cornwall regarding waste – waste is a valuable resource!

Our business has featured on Escape to the Country and we are currently working with local partners at the University (Tevi), to apply for grants to help our business take the next step – we cant keep up with demand! We currently sell online and in-person as well as through the Marine Conservation Society who we allow to take most of the profit from their sales.

What used to happen to all that rubbish from beach cleans? 

Well, it used to go to landfill (or actually now it is incinerated by Cornwall) but once we realised that we were taking it out of the water and sending it to landfill, The Ocean Recovery project run by Keep Britain Tidy started sorting it. They take the old fishing nets and rigid plastics and using the net regeneration scheme are used by Odyssey Innovation and made into things like kayaks.

The rest of the plastics, sweet wrappers, crisp packets come to us and we clean them in a cement mixer and wash them like they’re in a washing machine. It’s a good start but we’d need to sell a lot of jewellery to deal with the rubbish so it’s not a long term sustainable solution.

You’re obviously not one to stay still – what’s next?

My new project is working on developing a circular economy for Falmouth. Alongside the community, the University of Exeter, Cornwall Council and Falmouth Town Council, we’re mapping all the businesses in Fal and seeing how en masse waste can be re-used. We’re currently in the data collection phase and about to start trials.

When you say circular, what does that actually mean?

So take for example big industrial business Watson Marlow in Falmouth. They make pumps. You name the pump, they make it. They’re industrial on a big scale. We’ve been working with them on reducing plastic usage and also working on projects to use their waste – they have a lot of waste wood palettes, which they were having to get rid of. We discovered that there was someone nearby looking for wood to make recycled furniture so they now donate the palettes to them. It’s about closing the waste cycle. Thinking laterally, and locally. Is there another business locally who can use my waste?

We now have coffee shop grounds going to allotments. Some of the fishermen donate their ground shells to farmers for fertiliser. It’s all about working out whether your waste is someone else’s raw material.

So what’s Plastic Free Falmouth?

It’s a Surfers Against Sewage national campaign and Falmouth is just one of the communities. I also co-lead Plastic Free Cornwall together with Rachel Yates, who is the Plastic Free Penzance champion and also works for SAS. She’s another amazing lady.

Basically you need to fulfill 5 different areas to qualify to get your status and then you do what your community needs. So far in Falmouth that has meant plastic-free events, getting water taps installed, starting up community composting, etc. We’ve now 80 businesses working with us to reduce plastic and carbon. We’ve done loads but there’s always more to do. 4 more taps are going in this year. We installed 4 on the beaches (Swanpool, Gyllyngvase, Maenporth and Castle beaches) and more are going in the town this summer. Each one takes a lot of paperwork, but it’s worth it.

Do people use them then?

They do. You’d be surprised, and it’s not just people trying to save money. People genuinely want to reduce single-use bottles. People were queuing to use the taps last summer.

Interestingly, research from the University of Exeter and SAS report that the taps actually increased footfall to the businesses nearby especially the cafes as people were coming in to fill their bottles and staying to buy cake, or whatever. It’s having a positive impact and helping the businesses to be more visible.

There’s a lot of women who are entrepreneurs and business owners in Falmouth, and Cornwall. What’s the general vibe?

It’s amazing. No one is in competition with each other, we share skills, contacts and information. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. There is energy, drive and excitement. I guess down here in Cornwall we’re a peninsular, we’re cut off. We have to rely on ourselves and our community. There are so many strong women doing interesting things and are very supportive. I’m in a cool Facebook group called Empowered Women of Cornwall which is a sort of networking group. We rely on each other, share skills. If you need something, say an accountant, you post in there and someone will recommend someone awesome.

Do you think women work differently?

I’m not sure – perhaps we do business in a more unique way. I think women are happier to admit when they don’t know what they are doing and ask each other for support.

That said, I was in a builders merchant last week and I was spoken to and treated as an equal. There were loads of men going about their business and it was staffed by men, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. It was all completely normal and equal. I think maybe things are finally changing.

A bit of a change in tack, but we can’t talk about Cornwall and beaches without asking, which one’s your favourite?

I love Gwithian. Something about the expanse of sand, how big it is, the lighthouse and how so much room there is, no matter how many people are there in summer. I feel like I can breathe. And I love the sand dunes.

And in Falmouth?

It’s got to be Maenporth for a nice spot of paddling boarding with the kids. I can show them the caves and the wreck, lots of cool stuff that we can do safely and easily. Mind you, I’ve been in Cornwall for more than 20 years, and I’m still discovering new places, walking the coast path and finding special places to go paddleboarding. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such lovely coastline.

Lastly, tell us where in Falmouth makes the best coffee!

It’s got to be Espressini. Or Good Vibes. Both are fabulous, but Good Vibes is run by a woman!

Want more?

Join Kirstie at the following events:

Boslowick Spring Festival clean up (21 March, 10am)

Pendennis castle free craft event (making bags out of old pillowcases) (27 March, 10am)

Find more ideas here


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