Famous pottery magnate Emma Bridgewater’s 'Definite No' to plastic pollution of rural England

By Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, PPC Ambassador    

Emma Bridgewater is probably England’s best known pottery designer, famous for her distinctive lines plateware, mugs, milk pitchers, kitchen towels – all manner of items for the kitchen, and for indoor and outdoor dining. Visiting London a couple weeks ago I learned that there was a certain unusual Bridgewater product I should see— “something having to do with plastic” said my London-based sister. Imagine how my jaw dropped when I saw this: a “Real Butter Dish” with this message on the lid: “Say A Definite No To Plastic!”

I immediately bought three: one for me, one for my sister, and one for PPC’s Dianna Cohen. The butter dish is part of the very popular “Black Toast” line of wares – but is the only one with this environmental message. I had hoped for a full breakfast set with plate, mug, egg cup, and marmalade spoon, this being England after all. More to the point, I wanted to know the story behind the design and manufacture of this single item. What is Bridgewater’s interest in the plastic pollution? Why a butter dish? Are more “Say a definite no to plastic” pottery wares coming?

The first question is quickly answered: Emma Bridgewater, one of the UK’s most recognizable designer for the home (especially the kitchen and bedroom), is also the president, since last year (2016) of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), which since 1926 has worked “locally and nationally to protect, shape and enhance a beautiful, thriving countryside for everyone to value and enjoy. Our members are united in their love for England’s landscapes and rural communities, and stand up for the countryside, so it can continue to sustain, enchant and inspire future generations.”

Ms. Bridgewater was seen at the time as an unusual choice for leader of the CPRE, but in addition to being a successful, creative entrepreneur and business manager, she has also been long committed to protection of England’s environmental resources and beauty, and to mindful development of urban and suburb spaces in that context. Bridgewater’s patterns and designs frequently draw from the flora and fauna of the English countryside. My own small but growing collections Emma Bridgewater coffee mug collection features images of popular dog breeds, song and game birds, foxes, badgers, the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s reign (I guess she is part of the landscape too).

Which brings us to plastic.  Like everywhere else in the world plastic has found its way from the most popular to the most remote British coastlines, tangled in hedges, trees, and fencing wire, clogging storm drains and waterways. In an editorial in The Daily Mail on 6 August 2016, Bridgewater introduced herself as the new president – and announced her first campaign: a battle against plastic:

“[A]lmost everywhere I look I see evidence of our casual disregard for what nature has given us: the vast armies of pylons marching out as far as the eye can see; the litter left behind at beauty spots; and – a pet hate of mine – the discarded plastic bottles, whether in hedgerows or bobbing in ponds and lakes. … I sometimes wonder what has become of us that we feel the need to carry water around with us at all times. Is it really necessary? Ten billion plastic bottles are thrown away every year, littering streets and polluting pristine landscapes alike. I want to see this tide of driven back.”

The full editorial presents some facts about the UK's use of plastic bottles:

·       £2.1bn: the value of the UK water market

·       13bn plastic bottles used in UK per year

·       10bn plastic bottles sent to landfill annually

·       350,000 tons of carbon released in UK air by the bottled water industry

·       440 plastic water bottles used in the average UK home

·       7 litres of water needed to make one plastic bottles

In the face of this Bridgewater advocates expanding the plastic-bag user-fee to the use of plastic bottles: “Like everyone else, I’ve been thrilled by the transformation brought about by the introduction of the 5p charge for plastic bags, which has caused an 80 per cent reduction in their use.  Now let’s turn that same determination to curing the curse of plastic bottles.”  She would also like to work with local business to support the installation of filling station and water fountains in towns and at tourist sites.

And – why a butter dish? Because in addition to bottles, English consumers buy millions of plastic butter and margarine containers every year—and plunk them into an Emma Bridgewater butter dish. This particular dish, though, is a little smaller: in fact, too small to fit any standard plastic spread container. So – if you want to buy this unique butter dish, you’ll have to buy real butter!

Read more: My battle with the bottles that blight Britain: Pottery queen and new countryside boss Emma Bridgewater's war against green belt destruction... and a very modern scourge

Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor is Associate Professor of Women's Studies and English at Penn State University.