Nicola Vernon is the chairperson of Greyton Transition Town. She has lived in Greyton for 19 years and is deeply invested in the well being of the community and the planet.

Greyton. Photo by Ian Tunbridge/Flickr (under licence CC BY-ND 2.0)
Smaller shops in Greyton almost immediately gave up the plastic shopping bag

Greyton in the Western Cape is attempting to become the first town in South Africa to be free of the single-use plastic shopping bag. The campaign was started three years ago by local sustainability non-profit organisation, Greyton Transition Town (GTT), with support from the Two Oceans Aquarium and its national Rethink the Bag campaign. Local retailers were invited to a presentation by Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Campaigner and Rethink the Bag founder Hayley McLellan, which was hosted by Peccadillo’s Restaurant. Most small shops were represented and of the three supermarkets in town, one set of owners attended with the other two sending a manager.

Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Campaigner and Rethink the Bag founder Hayley McLellan also presented to school children back in 2014

Following that, another restaurant, Searles, hosted a Cashiers Challenge, where all the cashiers from every outlet in town were invited to have a fun evening of dinner, drinks and dancing, including a competition where a dummy till and counter were set up. Each team of cashiers from each retailer stood behind the counter and had their patience tested by a difficult customer, played by a local comedian who threw every conceivable argument for plastic bags at the hapless staff. Soon everybody was rolling with laughter but lessons were learned, prizes won and the cashiers prepared to take on the challenge in their own shops.

The parachute bag folds up into a neat little package which fits easily into a pocket or handbag. The bag has a zip and a clip which can be used to attach it to purses, belts or keys. This makes it easy to remember when you go shopping. 

Hayley with Samantha the Penguin

Posters around town announced the plan to ditch the plastic bag and the Aquarium dispatched a man in a penguin suit [that’s Aquarium mascot Samantha the Penguin] to visit the supermarkets to convince them to go the same route as the smaller shops. Competitions were held with prizes including some reusable bags containing cash prizes or gift vouchers. As a result of this event, the supermarkets chose to go plastic bag free on International Plastic Bag Free Day in July 2014.

It was at that stage that the campaign stalled. The three supermarkets, responding to the call and taking all plastic bags away from the tills, encountered such hostility and anger from their customers that they abandoned the campaign completely and GTT had to go back to the drawing board.

Greyton’s consumption of plastic shopping bags had declined from 50 000 a month to 10 500

The NPO took stock and found that the campaign hadn’t been a complete failure. A survey done prior to and after the campaign revealed that Greyton’s consumption of plastic shopping bags had declined from 50 000 a month to 10 500, and this has remained more or less stable over the past two years since the end of the first stage of the campaign.

Since that time, GTT has focused on education within the schools and via community groups. Awareness is slowly being raised and many residents of Greyton have turned away from plastic bag use. The major problem lies with the tourism trade. As an iconic village and tourism destination, Greyton attracts many visitors who are unaware of the town’s plastic-free ambitions.

Foldable, zippable, attachable reusable shopping bags

To that end, GTT is devising a Green Leaf campaign, which will award those dining and accommodation establishments and other tourism attractions who adopt “green” measures, including offering a gift of a reusable bag to visitors or encouraging them to buy one. Flyers in the rooms and posters in the establishments together with information on websites and social media will reinforce the message.

At the same time GTT has set up a small business making their own bags from offcuts of parachute material that is manufactured here in South Africa by Gelvenor Fabrics in Mpumalanga. Three former factory machinists are hard at work making the bags and earning an income. A key part of the campaign is to tell residents that by investing in a reusable bag they get their money back within 15 shopping trips, as they haven’t had to spend 50c or more on plastic bags each time.

Bags produced in Greyton provide employment opportunities for the local community

The bags are gaining in popularity and, as well as in Greyton, they are sold to outlets in Cape Town, Noordhoek, Hout Bay and Hermanus. More machinists are soon to be employed as a result.

At the time of writing, GTT is working with one of the three supermarkets that is determined to become the first supermarket in South Africa to ditch the single-use plastic shopping bag completely. It is hoped that the other two supermarkets will follow suit, and then Greyton will have achieved its ambition.

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