What has happened to the zero waste movement during COVID-19? Well, even the most steadfast of sustainable influencers have resorted to stocking up on packaged food, and some large coffee chains removed their reusable cups. While all this has been a huge step back in the environmental battle to reduce single-use plastics, it’s entirely understandable given how little we know about the virus.
Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts, the problems with climate change and plastic pollution will still be with us when it’s all over. There are now reported to be more masks than jellyfish in the ocean with PPE being discovered in enormous quantities and, despite 199 scientists from 18 countries publishing a signed statement to reassure the public that reusable containers are safe during the pandemic, single-use items are still in mass circulation.
What can we do? Surely a priority should be to put pressure on those in power to make significant and long-lasting changes? One of the best ways to advocate for this is by investing our money in businesses which are trying to make a difference. One such proprietor is Lucy MacCallum Reynolds, owner of Goodness Zero Waste, a new plastic-free shop set to open its doors in Urmston, Greater Manchester at the end of August 2020.
But what exactly is a ‘zero waste’ store? Shops like MacCallum Reynolds’ outlet aim to drastically reduce single-use plastic packaging and, by only purchasing the amount of product required, decreasing the likelihood of food waste and reducing our impact on the environment.
“I don’t have a degree in environmental science, I’m just trying to make zero waste accessible,” says MacCallum Reynolds. “There’s still a preconception that it’s for a certain type of person who lives in a certain way and not for people who are busy.”
In addition to a large variety of foods, Goodness Zero Waste, whose slogan is ‘making a difference more convenient’, will also have refill stations for beauty and household products, an ethical gift section as well as a TerraCycle point (a collection bin where members of the public can drop off hard-to-recycle waste). There are also plans for a small coffee bar selling coffee from Manchester-based roasters Heart and Graft, a craft area for zero waste workshops, a clothes swap rail, and plastic-free recipe boxes. And there’s mention of wine and peanut butter refill machines.
The need for more sustainable practices is becoming a louder conversation, but its proposed solutions are still viewed as untenable. I consider myself a conscious consumer but the nearest zero waste shop is a 30-minute walk. I don’t drive so I often have to use a supermarket, particularly during the early stages of COVID-19 lockdown where movements were restricted. Despite some supermarket chains now selling reusable produce bags (around 30p each) and adopting paper bags in store, it’s pretty much impossible to shop plastic-free in their outlets.
MacCallum Reynolds believes that the answer lies in accessibility. “If there was a zero waste shop opposite the supermarket where people could get things just as easily and know that it was ethical, local and sustainable then they’re more likely to give it a shot.”
After watching Our Planet and War on Plastics, MacCallum Reynolds became more aware of roadside litter and her own impact, so she began making an effort to reduce her plastic consumption. But it’s not a straightforward switch. “People are busy, we tend to grab what’s there and what’s there isn’t that great,” she says. Instead, MacCallum Reynolds turned to the internet for inspiration and advice before coming across Plastic Freedom, a sort of ethical superstore. “I began ordering from there and thought ‘how realistic is it that people have got time to go out of their way to do this and pay for postage as well?’. So I thought if we all need to do something, and we do all need to do something not just the odd person, it needs to be easier.”
She adds: “I didn’t realise there were zero waste shops at this point and I thought I’d come up with the whole concept. I thought ‘why isn’t this being done?’ but when I looked into it more, I realised that there’s a whole community out there. People often work against each other in business but, in this sector, everyone works together and helps each other out. It’s a supportive environment and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
As Goodness Zero Waste has a social purpose which benefits the environment and the community, MacCallum Reynolds was eligible for funding, but COVID-19 made accessing this impossible. MacCallum Reynolds secured £5,000 from NatWest as part of the lender’s Back Her Business scheme but the remainder of the financial backing came from an ‘all or nothing’ crowdfunder. “I couldn’t sleep that first night,” she admits. “I kept thinking ‘Why did I do all or nothing? I’m not going to reach that. People won’t donate.’”
But MacCallum Reynolds needn’t have worried. The crowdfunder received 231 supporters and raised £12,120, exceeding her original target of £11,800. “I was flawed by the reception. It wasn’t just the people that were donating, it was the messages of support. Setting up a business is quite a lonely thing, so it makes a real difference when you know that there are people out there excited for you.”
During lockdown, there seemed to be a renewed interest in shopping locally with some people becoming more self-sufficient by growing their own vegetables and baking bread. If we were looking for something positive to come from the pandemic, perhaps it’s a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us on a global scale.
“There’s a greater sense of togetherness,” agrees MacCallum Reynolds. “People were being a lot more conscientious and supporting local business and economy. Lockdown brought everyone together and now that people are starting to get busy again I just hope that carries on.”
Initially, there was a significant decrease in littering during lockdown but there’s been a stark change in recent weeks. In June, 41 tonnes of rubbish were dumped on the Bournemouth coastline over the course of one weekend. It’s clear that we need to urgently rethink our attitudes to waste. What does MacCallum Reynolds think we can do as consumers?
“If you’ve got something that’s easy to grab, people will do that because it is easier. But if we’ve got reusables and refillables and things that people can easily access, then that’s obviously going to make a real difference.”
The ugly truth is that plastic is unavoidable and people mistakenly believe they need to do sustainability perfectly or not at all. Does the term ‘zero waste’ feels too alienating? MacCallum Reynolds believes that people perceive the movement to be judgemental. “I’m trying to give the impression that it’s the complete opposite. We’re all just members of the public that want to do our best but obviously it’s not that easy. Rather than being preachy, I’m trying to put my hands up and say ‘Hey, I’m just the same as you guys. I don’t know everything about sustainability but we’re in this together and lets just try our best.’
“There is a misconception that it’s more expensive than shopping elsewhere. Obviously, big businesses can buy in bulk so their prices are generally cheaper but you’ll be quite surprised by price comparisons. It’s about helping people to realise this misconception.”
Where to begin?
Does MacCallum Reynolds have any tips for people looking to be more sustainable with their food shopping but aren’t sure where to start? What can people do to minimise waste and their impact on the environment when buying everyday food items and essentials?
“There’s some of the obvious stuff like planning your meals so you’re reducing waste. There are times, like when you go shopping hungry, when you fill your trolley with things you don’t need. When you’re in the fruit and veg section, pick up the loose items. I know at the moment a lot of delis aren’t open, but ordinarily you can take Tupperware to the shops and get your meat and fish in your own container.”
She continues: “At home, one of the first things I switched to was a reusable razor and I don’t know why these aren’t more popular because they’re perfect. The amount of plastic razors we go through, and these you can just keep using forever, I don’t get why it’s not well known. Also, things like washing-up sponges that you might buy regularly. They’re made of plastic, they’re wrapped in plastic. You can get loofahs and you can also grow these in your garden. I’m not growing them at the moment as I don’t have the best reputation with plants.
“I think nature is pretty magic. My husband thinks I look like a bit of a tweenie for saying this, but I watched Down to Earth (a Netflix docu-series featuring Zac Efron) and it just shows that nature really does give us everything and we are going about things completely the wrong way and messing things up.”
It’s becoming increasingly evident that we’re making unnecessary synthetic products rather than relying on our body’s own capabilities or harnessing natural products to give us a helping hand.
“Exactly,” MacCallum Reynolds agrees. “Look at natural deodorant. I know that people are a bit worried about it at first, but it’s brilliant. I told a few of my friends that lockdown was the perfect time [to try it] just in case they needed an adjustment period.”
Other simple changes include walking and cycling more as well as switching to a renewable energy supplier. “You don’t even need to do anything other than press a few buttons,” says MacCallum Reynolds. “It’s so easy.”
So, does she see people adopting habits that will ensure a green future? “It’s my hope that there will be a zero-waste shop on every high street. I know, potentially, that I might only be bridging a gap and eventually the big supermarkets will be doing it, and I know I sound like I am shooting myself in the foot, but for us to make a difference it needs to be the big dogs. If I can help in the meantime, that’s a bonus.”