Blog post co-authored by Emma Burnett.
Every area of the food sector has its own set of problems with waste: from food waste to post-consumer waste or just wastes of time, we all have issues that we need to tackle. And while some issues have reduced during the COVID-19 lockdown (air- and noise pollution for instance), others have increased (single-use plastic and food packaging), and some will be tricky to navigate as we return to a new normal. Some people have even warned that this may just be the end of zero waste food retail and catering, as hygiene concerns around reusable containers and food refills have taken precedence. But are things really looking that bleak?
The Good Food Oxford network meeting in June focused on zero waste and sustainable packaging, and several local food businesses, caterers and community food services confirmed that use of single-use bags, cups and take-away containers has indeed risen sharply during this time. But we have also seen many innovative and passionate initiatives to keep up, and step up, great work. We wanted to know more, and so we looked at some examples of organisations and food businesses from around Oxfordshire as they try to navigate this evolving space.
OxUnboxed by Oxford Hub
OxUnboxed is a refill shop operating out of the Oxford Hub office on Little Clarendon Street. The shop is run by a committee of volunteers from all walks of life, and the shop is also staffed entirely by volunteers.
"We sell a range of vegan dry foodstuffs, household cleaning products, and other items which help our customers reduce their plastic waste (for example cotton produce bags and bamboo cutlery). We purchase our stock in bulk from our suppliers (Infinity Food and SESI), and our customers bring their own containers to refill. OxUnboxed aims to provide all local people with the opportunity to shop plastic-free, and make Oxford a greener and cleaner city. We deliberately keep our prices lower than supermarkets, to be affordable for students and those on low incomes. We believe a low-waste lifestyle should be accessible to everyone, regardless of socio-economic status.
In the future, OxUnboxed also aims to hold a range of socials and events open to all, which will help to educate people on the importance of a low-waste lifestyle, and build a community of eco-conscious consumers in Oxford.
We do not claim to be ‘plastic free’, as the food products we purchase from our suppliers come in large plastic bags. At present it is impossible for us to find food which is not packaged this way due to food hygiene regulations. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we have also been forced to purchase plastic gloves and disposable facemasks, which has increased our overall waste. Our food waste is very low as we make sure that we do not over-order, and our products have long expiry dates. Another significant issue we face is that the council will only collect our waste if it is in specific single-use plastic bags."
Flo’s Refill Shop & Café
Flo's Refill Shop is a small zero-waste shop at Flo's – The Place in the Park, a community centre in Florence Park, East Oxford. The aim of the community-owned shop is to help local people reduce plastic waste at the same time as investing in local community initiatives.
"Pretty much the only waste we have at the refill shop is the packaging which the food arrives in. This is paper or plastic bags, or cardboard boxes. Mostly we can't control this as it comes from our supplier Infinity Foods. For liquids we use SESI Refill who collect the empty bottles and re-use them.
We minimise food waste as much as possible in the café and our waste is very low. We cook meals with surplus vegetables and food that would otherwise have been wasted, donated by the Oxford Food Bank. Lots of this is used to cook free meals for those struggling due to COVID-19, as part of the OX4 Free Food Crew initiative. We also have a changing menu and sustainable suppliers like SESI. Other than that, our waste is the usual and goes for council collection of recycling and residual waste for incineration, but if there are other ways to go about this we'd be happy to hear about it."
Cultivate Oxford operates a veg box scheme and also had a stall at Summertown Farmers Market on Sundays which has been suspended since mid April. They are a cooperative business and, in addition to vegetables, sell bulk groceries from SESI and other locally-produced food such as apple juice, honey, coffee and more.
"Waste is not our primary focus. But, since COVID-19 turned the world upside-down, it’s become one of the things we’ve gotten better at noticing and calling out, because we’ve seen a painful increase in it at Cultivate Oxford (particularly in plastic wrapping).
We try to be low-waste. We’re very good at ordering in what we need, so we don’t generate much food waste. What we do generate is usually due to accidents (dropped eggs) or spoilage (bad potatoes or onions). But at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown the amount of plastic that came in on our veg got out of control (not from our local suppliers, though, they’re great about it). It seems like everything that came to us was in some form of plastic wrapper, bag, or container. Some of these are necessary, particularly due to the longer supply chains we had to work with (bags on salad heads really do help keep them from wilting), some debatable (a way to control small loose veg from roaming wild in veg boxes), and some are totally ridiculous (netted bags of celeriac? Plastic bags full of carrots? Why? WHY?!).
We’ve really felt the impact of being a tiny cog in an unthinkably large machine, and it’s super disempowering. Every time a customer complains that we use too much plastic, we take it seriously. Every time we complain, our wholesaler takes it seriously. But when he complains, does anyone hear? Or do his large-scale producers just say: it’s what the consumer wants. They have to change their behaviour, then we’ll change ours. We do demand change, but no one is hearing the end-users, or us (we’re basically just slightly larger consumers)."
The Market Garden, Eynsham
Eynsham's sustainable local greengrocers Lucy and Jonathan at The Market Garden grow their own vegetables in Long Hanborough and have also recently re-opened their Wholesome Earth Café at the shop. The shop stocks an impressive range of unpackaged bulk groceries and SESI Refill cleaning products.
"By far the majority of the waste we produce here at The Market Garden is cardboard and, to a lesser extent polythene from the outer packing of retail products. During COVID-19 we have not noticed an increase in this particularly; if anything, it has decreased due to our main supplier now accepting returns of the large cardboard boxes we get our deliveries in. There have also been improvements in the packaging of some of the bulk products we sell loose in our dispensers; for example pasta, which used to come in 10kg polythene bags, is now in paper.
In terms of food waste, having pigs and composting on our Market Garden means that the quantities left over from these are thankfully very small and mostly consist of cooked waste from our cafe. We pay for a separate collection of this alongside our dry mixed recycling bin. Several weeks into lockdown we noticed to our horror that this bin was being combined with our dry mixed recycling in the same truck.
Following a fractious conversation with the firm in question, they reported that this was necessary since it was "not economic to run a separate food waste collection service due to so many hospitality locations shutting down during the exceptional conditions created by COVID-19". Whilst they may have had a point, we were outraged that they didn't at least keep us informed that they were temporarily withdrawing the service so we could have made alternative arrangements. As we made clear, mixing wet food waste with recyclables, particularly so much cardboard, would have seriously compromised its recyclability. We have since moved to another provider.
As Cultivate has touched upon, packing of fruit and vegetables continues to be a challenge, particularly because plastic films are so useful in maintaining product quality of leafy greens. We think until a transparent, colourless compostable film comes along that performs as well, this will continue to be a challenge. Where we see particular products coming in with unfathomable use of packaging, e.g. leeks in polystyrene boxes, we have taken to contacting the grower directly (where this info is on the side of the box), but have so far been met with stony silence. It is something we are persevering with however.
In our opinion, a trade association of zero waste/reduced packaging independent retailers would be a great way forward. Such a group already informally exists online amongst the various forums, all it needs is someone to take the lead and set one up. This way there could be a greater collective force in lobbying the supply chain into making the much-needed improvements."
We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences, whether you run a zero waste food operation, a catering business or are thinking of starting one. What challenges are you experiencing at this time, and what lessons have you learned that you could share with our network? Would you find an Oxfordshire-wide zero waste email group useful? Do you think you could be the right person to set up a zero waste trade association? Please get in touch!