Plastics are ruining the planet. Manufactured from fossil fuels, they last forever, making their way into every environment and causing untold damage. With these issues coming more into focus in the public eye, there are those who are seeking solutions.
With a master’s degree and a PhD in chemistry under his belt, Tom Pell decided he wanted to make a positive impact on the world, so he stepped into the retail world and is in the process of setting up The Clean Kilo, Birmingham’s first ‘zero-waste’ supermarket. Locavore spoke to Tom about the shop, advances in bio-plastics, and the challenges facing small eco-businesses.
You come from a background in the chemistry world. What inspired your move away from this into the retail sector?
Well, I have had an interest in environmental issues since I was at university. In 2007 I did a campaign with Greenpeace (only as a visitor really, not a hardcore activist) which was asking people to sign a petition to get MP’s to vote on the commissioning of coal-fired power stations by the, then Labour, government. This was in the atrium of an independent art house cinema in Nottingham called Broadway. After the campaign was finished we all went to watch Leonardo Dicaprio’s documentary 11th Hour. At which time, no one really knew about the silent issue of plastic continuously being pumped into the ocean.
I finished my chemistry and started a master’s, followed by a PhD in a very similar field. Towards the end of PhD my interest in biofuels and green chemistry had grown, but unfortunately it was too late to side step into a new field; it’s competitive enough in a field that you are trained in. So I knew at this point that I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on the planet and the environment, but knew it couldn’t really be in chemistry. A conversation with my girlfriend where we talked about ways to cut down on plastic led to her coming up with the concept of a shop without packaging – a concept which I had already seen in Australia while I was doing my PhD – and we never really looked back from there!
You’ll be the first zero-waste supermarket in Birmingham. With similar projects in places such as London and Totnes, as well as further afield in Germany and the USA, do you think we’re on the cusp of a change?
I think there is a danger of only being able to market a shop like this to people who are already conscious of the current issues we face, possibly leading to only having a limited positive impact on the plastic problem. However, this is an issue that has been in the public eye in recent times, with the showing of BBC’s Blue Planet II and the plethora of news articles from Sky’s Ocean Rescue etc.
I also believe that if we can widen our range of products as much as possible, to include items that are shorter shelf-life such as milk, cheese, butter (including non-dairy alternatives like nut/soya milk and tofu), then we can make the shop more convenient. Although this will be how the shop will evolve, I don’t want to sell shorter shelf life products until we know that our customer base is big enough to buy them. After all we don’t want to be creating food waste ourselves!
In addition we will be selling all of the usual dry products – rices, pastas, pulses, nuts, and more. We’ll stock teas, coffee (regular and decaf, which you can have as whole beans or freshly ground by yourself in store), freshly squeezed juices, chocolate, cereals and muesli, oils, vinegars, herbs and spices, protein powder, plenty of dairy-free and gluten free-alternatives, cleaning products and toiletries (vegan and environmentally friendly). I think that covers everything!
A click-and-collect service will be added to the mix as soon as possible, too. Customers will be able to order the exact quantities they want online and then drop off their boxes en route to work. We would then fill them with the correct amounts, allowing them to pick up their products later, spending probably less time shopping than they would in any regular supermarket.
With a potential delivery service in the future, and all of the above, I think that we really can bring zero-waste living to a wider, more mainstream audience.
Will your zero-waste policy inform your choice of suppliers and producers?
We are picking suppliers that make it much easier to limit packaging. Obviously we will be buying products in the largest bags possible (10-25 kg sacks), and we are discussing with some suppliers about sending back containers to be refilled. This only works with suppliers who do their own deliveries as they will be able to pick up used packaging when dropping off goods.
Does your thinking about food and the supply chain feed into other areas, such as energy consumption, animal welfare, etc?
Yes, of course.
Your customers will be able to bring their own containers to refill, and you’ll be selling reusable containers also. What will these be made from?
The containers we’ll sell will be made from various materials. Some glass jars and bottles which can be kept and used at home, as well as cotton produce bags. Customers can also use free paper bags, or any container they want to bring which will fit on the scales (as long as they are clean).
In a country where food banks have become reality for many, what social change do you think needs to happen around food? And how can your model feed into these changes?
Because it’s possible to buy small quantities, our customers can buy just enough of each ingredient for one meal, meaning those who struggle to put food on the table will be able to afford to buy the other ingredients as well.
We will be making every effort to not generate food waste, but if anything does start to get close to its sell by date, we will be donating everything to projects like the Real Junk Food Project and FareShare.
Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming crowdfunding campaign?
Yes. It launches on Monday 4th December and it is partly to fund the inclusion of the shorter self-life products in the shop. We need to invest in equipment like milk dispensers, fridges, and a deli counter, otherwise it won’t be possible. Some of the money will go towards this, and some will go towards a state-of-the-art scale system which will be simpler and quicker for customers to use. The remainder of the money (if we are successful) will go towards the shop fitting.
We have decided to go with an ‘all-or-nothing’ campaign which means if we don’t reach our target then the money will go back to those who donated. We will tell people about the launch via social media and our email newsletter. We are therefore asking people to sign up to the newsletter at www.thecleankilo.co.uk
Do you think crowdfunding is a good thing? Is it an indication of the democratisation of business, or of the difficulty faced by small start-ups, especially in a UK food market dominated by the ‘big four’?
I think it is the latter really. With the economic downturn nearly ten years ago, it is still difficult for small, new start-ups to get loans from the bank.
Single-use plastics are indicative of our reliance on petrochemicals. Do you think we can ever move away from this, with the technological and social challenges involved in feeding ever more people in a volatile world?
As a chemist I know that there are many advances being made all the time in the depolymerisation of existing plastics through catalysis, and the invention of new biodegradable plastics. Although at the moment these won’t biodegrade in the ocean and therefore still have the same problems associated with them. But the society that we live in at the moment thrives on convenience (plastic-wrapped everything) because of the amount of holidays and experiences people want to be able to fit into their lives, whilst earning enough money to do it all. For this reason, if advances aren’t made quickly, then it will be a long time before we leave behind our addiction to plastic.
Do you think that zero-waste is a model that can be rolled out on a national scale, to rival the ‘big four’, or will it be more of a local, community-based thing?
Even though it would mean us losing a lot of customers in the future, I think it would be fantastic if the major supermarkets started to follow the refill model – although it would probably only be on a limited range, perhaps in a refill aisle. This would mean a much bigger and quicker impact for the planet.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I have always wanted to do something that is going to have a positive impact on the planet, and for me it was about thinking of a way I could have the biggest impact possible. I don’t think that one zero waste shop can single-handedly have a huge impact, but it’s all about educating and bringing the idea to as many people as possible. I wouldn’t be satisfied in a normal 9-5 job, I loved my PhD because no day was ever the same and I had autonomy, but decided that this was going to have the biggest impact for me.
Find The Clean Kilo on Twitter here.
For their website, click here.
To support the crowdfunding campaign, click here.