Debbie Bartlett is the founder of Litter-Free Felixstowe and has just been named Green Hero in the Suffolk’s Greenest County Awards 2021. Ahead of the Third Anniversary Group Litter-Pick this Sunday, she explains how the group now has the support of more than 1100 members
Like most people I have had many personal challenges and struggles in my life which have defined me. However, I also consider that I have been very blessed and fortunate. I have spent considerable time in rural Kenya (as a volunteer ambassador for Build Africa) and witnessed first-hand the struggles of ordinary people who simply want to feed and educate their children. It always humbles me to see how they remain happy and grateful they are with life and how much we can learn from their example. I am always inspired by the beauty of natural world and I am in complete awe of the wonders of the Earth. In the current climate, mankind’s rollercoaster of despair and hope is always there but we need to remain positive and try and do the best we can.
I moved to Felixstowe nearly six years ago, but I grew up in Ipswich and we spent our happiest times at the Dip in Felixstowe. As a child, it was always special when my dad came home from work and we took a picnic to the beach. I have so many great memories of Felixstowe and I am now very fortunate to live just opposite the beach. It is an incredibly special place because of the community spirit – people are so engaging and there are so many active groups doing positive work across the town. I was involved in ‘Felixstowe Helping Hands’ during the Covid crisis and it was remarkable how people volunteered to help elderly and vulnerable people with shopping and prescription deliveries. I think it really demonstrated how much residents care about the town they live in.
A friend of mine started Plastic Free Felixstowe early in 2018 in response to David Attenborough’s brilliant Blue Planet series. The impact of plastic waste going into the sea was terrible to witness and, with a career in shipping, living in a seaside town it seemed appropriate we should take action to reduce plastic. However, one day whilst I was walking my dog on the beach and I was shocked at the amount of rubbish being brought in by the sea. It just felt we needed to be doing more and, having been on litter-picks with just a couple of people, I felt we needed as many as possible to get involved if we were really going to make a difference. I had also heard a number of friends saying they ‘would have gone to a litter-pick but didn’t know it was on’. It struck me that we needed to maximise publicity to really raise awareness. Litter-Free Felixstowe was created in November 2018 and initially worried that no one would turn up but pleasantly surprised to see 90-plus people on that day.
The thinking behind it is to act as a community, to care about our town and protect the environment as much as we can. We want to educate as many as possible about the impact of litter on wildlife. It is also important to clear historic litter, not just from the beach, but from all public spaces including woods and parks. It is important to realise that litter left by a bench can end up in a stream which flows to the sea. We need to do more to ensure that we raise a future generation that respects the natural world and collaborate with other groups who share our objectives.
We now have more than 1100 members of Litter-Free Felixstowe. We work very hard to ensure people are active and encourage everyone to be involved rather than just pressing ‘like’ on Facebook. During the first Covid Lockdown, I lent out all our equipment so individuals could carry on litter-picking in their own ‘bubble’ because we were no longer able to meet as a group. People uploaded their photos to Facebook, so it felt as if we were still working as one community. We held ‘Litter-Free Long Weekends’ so people could choose their own time slot and ensure social distance rules were observed. It really took off and so many families joined the group during Lockdown. People were out on their daily walks, enjoying nature and doing something positive at the same time. We are now able to organise group litter-picks again and it is lovely for volunteers to work as part of a bigger group again.
Litter-Free Felixstowe is not just a litter-picking group. We work equally as hard on raising awareness about the impact of litter. It is important to be engaging and interesting, so people want to participate. Our ‘branded’ merchandise is important: t-shirts, hats, caps, hi-vis jackets are worn all over Felixstowe which helps to spread our message. We organised a poster competition last year and the winning entries are now proudly displayed in shops and eateries across the town.
We are most proud of our work with schools. I wrote two children’s books, ‘Just One Child’ and ‘Just One World’, about empowering young people to make a difference. They were incredibly well received and I have sold copies in Australia and New Zealand, USA and Canada, India and countries across Europe. The books have been used to create free online lessons in the UK and it has been very rewarding to be able to speak to classes from Ipswich to Leeds about the importance of the environment. To accompany the lessons, we produced a film starring local Felixstowe children talking about why they have decided to take action. It is so powerful to have young primary school pupils talking to their peers about caring for nature. More recently we re-created the iconic 1970s Coca-Cola advert featuring the song ‘I’d Like to teach the world to sing’ with new words to spread the anti-litter message. The Litter-Free song was recently featured on BBC Look East, and we want to get it into more schools.
I think we can all agree that everyone can do more. Young people are incredibly important in this and we need to ensure they feel empowered and not overwhelmed. Small actions can make a difference and people need to feel part of a bigger movement that will ultimately be beneficial for all life on earth. I am fortunate to have spoken directly to David Attenborough and his message is very clear: we all need to do something. We all need to keep hope alive and really believe that by coming together and working as one, we can turn things around.
I am in no doubt that some of our young Litter-Free Felixstowe volunteers will be future environmental ambassadors and getting them involved in their early years will have been important. Their parents should also take great credit in encouraging their participation.
We are currently putting together a website, but most people initially get involved via Facebook. Our next group litter-pick is on November 21 and is particularly important because it is our third Anniversary litter-pick. We want to celebrate together, and we are fortunate that the management at the Pier have agreed to provide free refreshments for the event. We will be hosting a scavenger hunt for the children with a prize donated by the drivers at a national haulage company. There will also be live music, an appearance by ‘our’ Womble and we hope to get everyone singing the Litter-Free song.
I was completely shocked to receive the Green Hero Award in Suffolk’s Greenest County Awards 2021 – it is such an honour, but it really isn’t just for me. Litter-Free Felixstowe isn’t about one person, it is about community, so I hope that every single person who has volunteered and supported us feels that they have also been recognised. No one ever sets out to win an award, but this is a wonderful achievement for a hard-working community group which has grown rapidly in the past three years. I hope it will increase our credibility when we are talking to businesses and that it reflects very positively on the town of Felixstowe.
There are so many people to thank. Obviously, those who took the time to vote but also everyone who has actively supported us over the past three years which includes local and national businesses, schools and shops. I would also like to thank the Council for its practical and financial support – I have met so many councillors and they are all united in their help for Litter-Free Felixstowe. It’s also important to thank those who have publicised our work including local radio, TV and press. Special thanks should go to Mark Murphy and his team at BBC Radio Suffolk – Mark has been such a leader in the fight against litter and his publicity has been essential in raising awareness.
On a personal note, I am deeply grateful to my late mother who gave me my love of Nature – she taught me so much on our walks. She knew the names of all the plants and would always be assisting wild birds and animals. Another important figure was my primary school teacher, Mr Keightly at Rushmere Hall Junior School – he showed me how influential a teacher can be. He loved talking about wildlife and I hope he knows how many children he inspired. I also would like to thank my family who put up with a lot of stress from me when I am organising our next project!
We want to involve more people and really get more schools and businesses actively participating. It is especially important to discourage some of the single use plastic litter which we see in Felixstowe – we can only do this through collaboration with the eateries along the seafront.
We also want to continue to work closely with the Council to ensure the main roads into Felixstowe are also kept as litter-free as possible. Over the past year we have organised a campaign, ‘Litter-Free Roads & Laybys’ working with national hauliers and shipping lines to raise awareness of the issues on main roads across the country. We want to mobilise all road users to take a stand against litter and I want to engage with national government to ask them to take more action.
In Felixstowe, we want more educational display boards to highlight the impact of litter on wildlife so that residents and visitors are aware. Working with the Council, I am also determined to organise a spring event to celebrate the environment. Personally, I am keen to do more work with schools and finish writing my book about the environment for older children. We are currently organising our own environmental awards and hope this will become an annual event. Above all we want to inspire and encourage as many as possible to get involved and care about the natural world.
Follow Litter-Free Felixstowe on Facebook. The third Anniversary Litter-pick takes place this Sunday, November 21, starting at 11am at Felixstowe Pier. Afterwards refreshment kindly provided by the Boardwalk management. Please indicate if you are ‘going’ on the Events section of the Facebook page. For the full list of Suffolk’s Greenest County Award 2021 Winners, click here.