Precious Plastic East Create Community Connection

Helping people to recycle plastics has been a pathway to growing community.

Waste Becomes Wonder: Precious Plastic East Create Community Connection 

As told to: Sam Moon

We are connected to the environment in which we live and the plastic products we use. Through inviting curiosity and discovery, Precious Plastics East are weaving the relationship of these together so that waste becomes wonder with the power of community at the heart of this plastic recycling workshop in Great Yarmouth.

We spoke to Dan, co-founder of the project and member of Neighbourhood Democracy Movement.

Dan outside Precious Plastic East.

So Dan, about a year or so ago you began the process setting up this amazing workshop, which I am sat in. Tell us a little about your journey with that and how that came about?

Well, I guess it’s worth saying right at the beginning. We've never recycled a piece of plastic in our lives, never actually done the process.

We secured the funding and then started the process: looking for a place for it to be and learning everything we needed to know, which is the journey we're still on.

This time last year, we were writing a response to the tender and didn't know whether it would come together. So to be sitting here now in the actual workshop, it’s been mind-blowing really to have got it this far.

It sounds amazing. Tell me a bit more about why it's important for you to do this? 

The thing that really gets me excited, is building organisations in communities that are related to something that is of a universal interest.

I wanted to do something which everyone would have a relationship with. Everyone has a stake in recycling in a coastal community. Everyone has a stake in the natural environment like the beach, the sea, everyone has a connection to that.

And so for me, it felt like a beautiful opportunity to be doing something, being active in a community in a place actually with a physical location within a neighbourhood.

It was like, well, let's move into a premises put a sign on the door and see what happens.

Okay. So what you are talking about is being able to build community and connection around things that are important to people, about what matters to people. So what did happen?

For the first few months, it was like, is anyone actually going to walk through the door?

We noticed there were dog walkers and folks on bikes passing, so we deliberately put a dog bowl and bike pump on the doorstep to invite people in or to engage with them.

It's only really been within the last month that finally people have started coming through the door and what was more exciting was we didn't know who was going to come through the door.

The thing that bought people through the doors was some kids that wanted to pump up their tyres. Normally I'll just leave the kids to themselves when they pump up their tyres, but something wasn't going right with the pump. So I stuck my head out the door and was like, “Hey, is everything working?” And they were like, “What is this place?!” Their curiosity was sparked, I guess. So actually, yeah. It started with kids.

Tell me a bit more about that. What I'm hearing is how you're creating invitation through the dog bowl and the bike pump and then conversation emerged.

So this first group of kids, we could have fixed the problem they had with the pump, and that was it. But they were just really genuinely curious. I thought because we do bits of bike stuff here, they would be most interested in the bike stuff. Then they saw the arcade, the litter arcade we've got which is an arcade machine designed to take litter rather than coins. And there were some questions about that, we followed their curiosity around the workshop basically. I was telling them about all the machines and what we did, showing them some of the products we made. They were bouncing off the walls with excitement!

I guess it was really important in that interaction to follow their curiosity to be open to what questions they were asking. They were fascinated and we did a lap of the workshop, ended up back at the litter arcade, and their question was, “how do we play the little arcade?”

The plan always with the litter arcade is people have to bring us litter to get credit for the arcade, and so we told them that and they were like, “great, how long you gonna be here for?” and they just disappeared off and 20 minutes later, they came back with a bag full of litter. That evening they kept coming back and forth for an hour.

That was the first day I guess when it actually felt like, wow, we're a bit more a part of the community today rather than just being an organisation in a building in a place.

PPE's arcade machine, which takes litter instead of coins.

So, what you're saying is that it's about relationships, about following curiosity, creating opportunities for people to discover their own curiosity in things. Tell me what you're enjoying most about this journey so far?

It's that feeling where your heart is racing a little bit more than it would normally and you don't quite know how something's going to go. A good example of this is we committed to building a two and a half metre high Christmas tree out of plastic bottles. I'm not sure whether that was a good idea.

Maybe looking back at it, at the point where we said yes, maybe it wasn't a good idea, but I guess, that was part of what was really enjoyable about taking on that project.

We had a month to collect 625 plastic bottles. We just didn't know how it was going to go, maybe that's funny that this was the kind of enjoyable bit. We had a hard deadline, and it forced us to turn to our community and say, “Hey, we've been asked to do this thing and the thing we're going to do is going to be really cool, but we can't do it without you.”

A day before the deadline we were still short of 300 bottles and the terrors were setting in. Then I get a message from Great Yarmouth Borough Council who knew nothing about the tree saying “we've got 10 bins full of bottles, do you want any of them?”

So, from that position of being on the brink of disaster, we've taken a big risk, it's incredible when you've got those relationships and you create an opportunity for those relationships to step up and be like, “we have got the solution to your problem”. Sometimes I think you do have to reach that point of desperation and then these things come out of the woodwork and come out of nowhere that you don't expect.

So in terms of being in that space of uncertainty, it also sounds like you've got lots of networks. Tell me how those networks have come about and how intentional they were at first, what happened for you with that?

It’s an interesting one because I guess we want to feel connected to the community around us. We've slowly been building relationships with the creative communities in Yarmouth. I guess our organisation is built on those relationships.

We've always been people who come up with kind of wacky creative projects and we've built relationships just through sharing our ideas and sharing what projects we're up to with other people who are also doing wacky kind of creative projects.

I guess it's like finding people who have similar weird quirks and embracing them and encouraging them in those weird quirks. We've slowly been connecting with them and finding them.

So in terms of you talking about connecting with people with the same kind of creative imagination and wacky ideas, to conversations with people through a dog bowl on a bike pump, tell me a little bit more about these options that you're discovering and what you're seeing as possibilities?

I guess another part of what we need to do and what is important to us to be doing is to be playing with plastic, in a way that also creates this sense of wonder and the unexpected in how it disrupts people's expectation.

The number of people who walk past our window while I've been building this Christmas tree and they stop for a minute and they're like, “ah wow, what’s that!? and I am in here slogging away, elbow deep in dirty Coke bottles and losing the will to live a little bit and then another person passes and says something like that, it just spurns me on and I am “Oh yeah! Okay! This is doing the thing I wanted to do!”

This wild journey to set up a plastic recycling organization when we've never recycled a piece of plastic in our lives. It is important to us to have something that joins people together, to become an organizing influence that has interest and is motivated to be responding to a particular thing and for that thing to become possible.

This tree is a good example of that, you know, the kids that brought us credits to play the arcade brought us over 100 bottles for the tree. So that's the community bringing stuff to us. And then the different organisations, they're the people that make this possible. I wasn't sure if it was possible, and actually the community were like, “Yeah, this is possible, we're going to help.”

So on that in terms of when you look forward, what's the best thing that could happen and what are your next steps?

My observations over the last year are that Yarmouth is full of people that are really motivated by keeping the beach plastic free and keeping the sea plastic free. They are really interested in doing the right thing with their own recycling, really interested in knowing that the plastic they use is going to a good place and reducing the amount of plastic. I think over the next year the biggest priority for us is just growing the community that know who we are and bringing more people in, and finding ways to ensure that those people feel like this is their thing as much as it's our thing. 

So, introducing playfulness and creativity into a community's response to the plastic that we generate is important, fundamentally. This organization needs to be part of an ecosystem and the community are fundamental to that. So, if what we're seeing here in a year's time is we don't feel any more connected to the community, then we have to really question what we have been doing I think.

So, what would you like, want or need from the community to make the next steps as wonderfully successful as they possibly could be?

I think this is why it's really interesting that the first people who came through the door were the kids, I think in some ways this is similar to our journey. We arrive at ideas like building a Christmas tree out bottles through a process of being brave around our curiosities if that's the right way of expressing it. The original idea for a Christmas tree was like, well, is that possible? you know, could we do that? Could we actually collect enough bottles, is the structure buildable? I like the fact that the kids were brave about their curiosities.

If we can find ways of building relationships with the community so they feel safe enough to express their curiosities. That would be a really beautiful thing because through those curiosities we open up opportunities to play, and explore and be transformed, and develop new understanding, and learning, and all sorts different stuff.

So with that in mind, in what ways, if any have you been changed by your experience in this journey so far? 

Wowzers, that is a big question. This isn't the first time I've done this sort of thing. And sometimes I've seen that as a weakness, because it's meant that if the things in the past haven’t had the outcome I wanted or haven’t been the idea of success that I had at the beginning, maybe they didn't end up in the place where I initially thought they would, how do you know if they're being successful.

The most important thing is to be trying to put what you're learning into action. And finding ways to do that and then finding ways to learn from that and finding ways to share that journey to encourage other people in it. I mean, there's lots of other learning about how to melt plastic and do things like that, but I guess that's the big learning for me. If you've got a heart for this sort of thing, then just make sure you're on the journey somehow because it brings a light to the whole experience of living.

My last question, What, if any, meaning was made for you through the course of our conversation?

You know what, I think there's a danger with anything like this, especially with a small community organisation that you get very obsessed with doing all the stuff because there's always something to do. It's hard to find times to sit down and reflect on the journey. So it reinforces the importance of making time to sit down and be like what just happened? Sometimes it's not until you take your brain out of the doing mode and into the reflecting mode that you appreciate the journey.

It's been really nice to think about how to describe what's happened because it has brought new understanding to the significance of this last couple of months and the process of building this ridiculous tree.

I am sat right next to it. Thank you Dan, that’s awesome.

This interview was conducted by Sam Moon, with editing support from Sam Walby

Story | 09.02.23

community, nature & economics, Neighbourhood Democracy, England, Story

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