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The whole package: the food businesses binning plastics

A zero-waste supermarket, a dairy farm and a London restaurant have become pioneers in the scrapping of single-use plastics

Jeanette Wong and Tom Pell the co-founders of the Clean Kilo, a zero waste supermarket in BirminghamPics - Adrian Sherratt - 07976 237651 Observer - ‘Food Monthly’. Jeanette Wong and Tom Pell the co-founders of the Clean Kilo, a zero waste supermarket in Birmingham (2 Apr 2019). - Pouring organic Millet Flakes.




Jeanette Wong and Tom Pell, co-founders of the Clean Kilo, Birmingham.
Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Observer

The supermarket

The Clean Kilo, Birmingham

When Tom Pell and Jeanette Wong came up with the idea for the Clean Kilo in early 2017, and set about creating Birmingham’s first plastic-free, zero-waste supermarket, several aspects of their plan filled their loved ones with trepidation.

For starters, the couple, who had known each other for just six months, had no working knowledge of high-street food retail. Wong, who worked as a menswear designer in Birmingham, did at least have marketing and social media experience; Pell, a chemistry PhD retraining as a secondary school teacher, had “no business background whatsoever”.

What’s more, the market research they carried out yielded a mixed response. “People were bothered about plastic pollution, and they were quite open to the concept of the shop,” says Wong. But whether Birmingham was ready for a food retailer that did away with all single-use plastics was, in the view of their respondents, quite doubtful.

“Even our friends and family were worried that people wouldn’t want to give up the convenience of packaged goods,” says Pell.

What the couple did have, however, was a burning sense of mission. Pell, who grew up in nearby Lichfield, and Wong, from Blackpool, had become increasingly concerned about pollution – particularly in the oceans, where an estimated 8m metric tons of plastics end up every year. “It’s such a serious issue,” says Pell. “It’s one of those things where you can’t not do something.”

Pressing on, they launched a crowdfunding campaign on 3 December 2017, with 45 days to hit their target of £14,607 – the basic amount needed to get the shop up and running. Their timing was good: the final episode of Blue Planet 2, examining the impact of human activity on marine life, had just aired on BBC One and public awareness was skyrocketing. By mid-January, Pell and Wong had shot past their target, raising a total of £20,459.

The Clean Kilo opened in June 2018 in a spacious corner premises, originally a bank, in Digbeth, the arty quarter of central Birmingham. When I visit seven months later, the shop is as busy as you might expect on a wet weekday morning in mid-January. Customers drift in and out picking up fruit and veg, locally baked sourdough bread and loose coffee beans. One woman has a minor mishap with a gravity dispenser, spilling pulses onto the floor rather than into her reused plastic container, but otherwise things are running smoothly.

Pell and Wong talk me through their stock, which includes soaps, cosmetics and household cleaning products, as well as food and drink. (“We try to encompass all the products you’d get in a normal supermarket, but without the plastic,” says Wong.) Then I get a demo of the hi-tech scales in the middle of the room, where you weigh your containers before and after you fill them with Bombay mix, dried pasta or freshly squeezed orange juice, receiving a barcoded sticker each time.

If the customer experience seems relatively straightforward, running the shop “is much more labour-intensive than we ever imagined”, says Wong when the three of us settle down for coffee across the road. “We’re dealing with so many suppliers, whereas another shop might get everything from one supplier. And we’re exchanging containers with many of our suppliers, which is a logistical challenge. Also, the dispensers have to be cleaned regularly, which is time-consuming.”

All of this raises labour costs. “You need more staff to assist the customers too,” says Pell, “especially when customers are new to the concept, which many are.” Add to this the high costs of setting up a shop like the Clean Kilo. “The dispensers cost quite a lot,” says Wong. “Big supermarkets have mass-produced shelving and don’t mind what it looks like. Whereas our branding is our shop floor, because we don’t have packaging, so we need to ensure the shop looks nice and inviting.”

Finding suppliers who are willing to change their packaging, or to supply in bulk, poses another challenge. “If they are a big company, they’re geared towards mass-production and it may not be worth it for them to adapt to us,” says Pell – though they recently got an established pasta producer in Italy to change from plastic bags to paper for the first time. “If the producer is too small,” he goes on, “they are usually unable to fulfil the larger order sizes we need and their prices are often higher.”

Do they now understand why food retailers find plastic so hard to give up?

“Yes and no,” says Pell. He acknowledges that plastic packaging can keep vegetables, such as broccoli, fresher for longer. The solution, at the Clean Kilo, is to buy locally and in small amounts, keeping transit and waste to a minimum. If something goes past its best, Pell adds, “we’ll either eat it ourselves or give it to the Real Junk Food Project”, the food waste charity with branches around the city.

Does cutting out plastic push up prices? “Some things are cheaper, some more expensive – we balance it out,” says Pell, noting a few items, including vine tomatoes, basmati rice and spices, that compete with their equivalents at Tesco. “I think if our prices were too high, people wouldn’t take it seriously.”

When I ask if going plastic-free is only possible for smaller retailers, Pell and Wong admit that scaling up to a national level would be a challenge. Local suppliers would have to be found for every branch, although producers working at a small scale may be unable to cope with increased demand and distribution systems would have to be overhauled. Exchanging containers might prove impossible, especially with overseas suppliers.

Despite all these obstacles, however, they believe supermarket chains could become plastic-free with time – and if they do, Pell adds, “it would actually make it easier for shops like us to get a better product range” as producers would be under greater pressure to adapt to plastic-free packaging.

It helps, says Pell, that their customers are free to buy less than the standard pre-packaged amounts – you can purchase a single chocolate-covered almond if you so desire. “If supermarkets were to change to this way of doing it,” Pell reckons, “they’d lose a lot of revenue.”

The people I speak to on the shop floor seem delighted by the venture. One customer, Jimmy, who lives locally, is visiting for the third time to stock up on pulses, beans, quinoa and wild rice. “I bring my own reusable containers and I love the stock,” he says. “I can probably get about two-thirds of everything I need from here. This is like a dream shop for me.”
1 Gibb Street, Digbeth, B9 4AA

The farm

Mossgiel Farm, East Ayrshire

Observer Food Montly Magazine OFM Bryce Cunningham of Mossgiel farms in Mauchline, Kilmarnock in Scotland. Mossgiel farm are 100% single use plastic free.


Bryce Cunningham of Mossgiel Farm, Kilmarnock. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

On 25 January 2019 – Burns Night – Bryce Cunningham posted a photo on Instagram of a glass milk bottle in a field backlit by pale winter sunshine. After quoting Robbie Burns on man’s dominion ruining nature’s social union, Cunningham, who runs Mossgiel Farm in East Ayrshire, neatly segued to the subject of single-use plastics, which he had spent the past year trying to eradicate at the farm.

“From today,” he wrote in the caption, “we are THE FIRST organic dairy in the country to … become 100% single-use plastic free in modern times, for all of our milk and cream packaging. It has been THE single most difficult thing we have done at Mossgiel.”

That’s saying something. Cunningham took over the farm in 2015, after his father and grandfather both died within the space of a year. He had spent a decade as a service team manager with Mercedes-Benz in the west of Scotland. “I had absolutely no interest in agriculture whatever,” he admits. “But when I went back to help things along and get the farm back on track, I ended up falling in love with it.”

Extending over 90 hectares in the upland town of Mauchline, south-west of Glasgow, Mossgiel is an easy place to fall in love with. But its picturesque location and romantic history – Burns lived and worked at Mossgiel in the 1780s – belie the difficulties of sustaining a farm here.

“Basically, I was left with this farm with 150 milking cows and I didn’t really know what I was doing,” says Cunningham, “and then the milk price collapsed. My first year in farming I lost £110,000. The bank said, ‘You’re no longer a supportable business,’ and asked for all their money back. We had to sell off a lot of assets” – including 16 hectares of land and 75 cows – “There was no way out: it was either bankruptcy or do something different.”

That “something different” involved going organic. When he returned to Mossgiel, Cunningham noticed how the lush pastures he remembered from childhood had been worn down by years of industrial farming. Determined to make a change, he stopped using industrial feed and fertilisers and put his herd on a grass-only diet, while investing in a pasteuriser to sell milk direct to the public. Initially it was difficult to find customers willing to pay a higher price for organic milk, but thanks to his legwork across the central belt of Scotland Cunningham now sells 14,000-16,000 litres a week. Until recently, all the milk and cream was going out in plastic cartons. “It was the cheapest, easiest, most hygienic way to do it,” says Cunningham. “But I felt that, even as we were doing all this great work with the environment [by going organic], we were letting the side down by using single-use plastic. It was only when I watched Blue Planet 2 that I thought: ‘We really must do something about this now.”’

Lacking funds to buy his first batch of 35,000 bottles and 1,200 reusable milk buckets, Cunningham turned to his growing customer base for help. In June 2018, he posted a jokey video, in which he takes his top off and kicks a plastic carton out of frame, to announce a crowdfunding campaign. After hitting the £10,000 target in mid-August, Cunningham promised that Mossgiel would be plastic-free by Burns Night.

“There were a lot of challenges with the machinery,” he says. “Back in the 1980s and 90s, when many small dairies went out of business, a lot of the bottle fillers and washers were exported out of the UK, leaving the older ones that possibly were not working properly.”

The first bottle filler he acquired, a 1968 machine that had been languishing on a farm in Cumbria, couldn’t keep up with production, so he was forced to find a replacement. The bottle washer, dating back to 1972, proved somewhat more reliable. “There have been a lot of swearwords and late nights trying to get these machines working – and a lot of staff training as well, because no one locally is doing what we’re doing – but we’re getting there,” says Cunningham.

As well as cartons going out to the public, which amounted to 4.56 tons of plastic in 2018, Cunningham has been cutting out all single-use plastics within the dairy – now, for example, he will only buy cleaning chemicals if the suppliers agree to reuse the containers.

A few challenges remain. “On the farm itself, we are still having to use plastic to wrap up the hay for the cows to eat during the winter,” he says. “However, we are working with a local group to try to make a bio-plastic out of langoustine shells. What we’ll eventually be able to do, if it’s successful, is put the used wrapping into a compost pile for six months and then spread it over the fields as a fertiliser.”

The customer response to the new milk bottles and reusable plastic containers has been “quite incredible”, Cunningham tells me. “Every day there’s someone tagging us on social media – they’ve picked up their first glass bottle of Mossgiel milk and are very taken by it.”

A quick scroll through the Mossgiel Farm Twitter feed proves his point. “I’ve never been so excited about milk!” reads one recent tweet. “Why? This is ORGANIC milk in a GLASS jar! … This is the dream!”
Tarbolton Rd, Mauchline, KA5 5LL

The restaurant

Spring, London

Skye Gyngell, is an Australian chef who is best known for her work as food editor for Vogue, and for winning a Michelin star at the Petersham Nurseries Cafe. She first trained as a chef in France, and afterwards moved to Britain.


Skye Gyngell, chef at Spring, London. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Skye Gyngell has a wry view of how she is perceived by the staff at her restaurant in central London. “Sometimes I think everyone says, ‘Oh God, it’s another initiative of Skye’s,’” she says, rolling her eyes at herself and laughing. “But actually this latest one has been very easy – and it’s been really positive for us as a restaurant.”

In January 2018, Gyngell, who opened Spring at Somerset House in 2014, decided it was time to cut out all single-use plastics. At an event in London called Rubbish Talks, where Gyngell was speaking about food waste – her pre-theatre “Scratch” menu at Spring makes use of misshapen fruit and veg and leftovers that would usually be thrown in the bin – she caught a talk by campaigner Siân Sutherland.

“It was really shocking to me,” Gyngell recalls of the talk, which addressed the overuse of plastic in the food world and the inadequacy of recycling to deal with the problem. “I went home and watched the documentary A Plastic Ocean on Netflix and slightly catastrophised the whole thing. I remember going to a supermarket after I’d seen it and walking around the aisles like a mad person going, ‘That’s plastic, that’s plastic …’”

She soon realised that her panic was counterproductive. “It becomes overwhelming, and when you’re overwhelmed you’re paralysed,” she says. “And the fact is, plastic is a marvellous material. It has its place. The last thing you want to do is throw out all the plastic in your home.”

For a more constructive approach, Gyngell sought advice from Sutherland, who runs a campaign group in London called A Plastic Planet. “She said: ‘Let’s take five or six items in the restaurant and focus on single-use plastics.’”

Top of the list was clingfilm. “We worked out that we used 260 rolls of clingfilm a year,” says Gyngell. The solution, which she admits “sounds a bit ridiculous”, was to go out and buy lids. “In this industry, saucepans usually come without lids, as they cost more. Instead, you just wrap your pot in clingfilm to bring it quickly to the boil. Same with gastros [stainless-steel pans used in food service]: we’d wrap them in clingfilm before putting them in the fridge.”

According to head chef Rose Ashby, the cost of buying all the necessary lids came to around £1,000; by comparison, the kitchen’s clingfilm outlay in 2017 was £1,037. (An additional £2,000 was spent on cutting out other service items containing plastic – disposable ice-cream cups, for example, were replaced with ceramic bowls.)

To get the staff on board, Gyngell asked everyone to come in one Sunday, when the restaurant was closed, to watch a short version of A Plastic Ocean and a talk by Sutherland over pizzas and beer. “We got a whiteboard and brainstormed about what we could all do to reduce plastic. ‘Why don’t we get rid of pens and get pencils?’ was one suggestion. Once people see their ideas being put into place,” says Gyngell, “they can feel part of the solution.”

Extending the campaign beyond the restaurant was a bigger challenge, with Spring’s meat suppliers particularly reluctant to abandon plastic in the delivery process. “We had to give up our beef supplier who couldn’t change, so we’ve moved to another who could,” says Gyngell. Meat now comes wrapped in paper in a cardboard box, whereas fish, from Cornwall-based suppliers Kernow Sashimi and Wild Harbour, arrives in blue plastic boxes that are washed and reused. Biodynamic leaves from Fern Verrow in Herefordshire, meanwhile, still come tucked inside thick sheets of plastic, but the sheets are washed, dried and sent back to the farm to be refilled.

The main area where Gyngell has failed to find a satisfactory solution is bin bags. “At home you could probably live without plastic bags and just put your garbage straight into bins outside. But we could never do that here – we’re in a Grade I-listed building, with huge health and safety regulations and a trust in charge of all the waste. The alternative we’ve settled on is recycled rather than biodegradable bags, which end up in landfill.”

For all the effort Gyngell and her staff have put into the campaign, most customers probably won’t notice it – unless they can tell that the Vegware straws are made from plant-based rather than oil-based plastic (though Gyngell is considering a further switch to metal straws). “We don’t talk about plastic actually. If you go on our website, we have a page about it.” She gives another wry smile. “But you don’t come here to listen to my ranting and raving: you come here to have a nice time.”
Somerset House, New Wing, Lancaster Place, WC2R 1LA