East Croydon Cool talks…Zero Waste

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. Whilst the Green Agenda has dominated news feeds over recent years, the past 18 months have heightened peoples’ environmental awareness and many now believe we’ll see an increase in ethical consumers.

Following on from our previous interview with OneNine5 about Sustainability, this month we caught up with Eleanor and Danielle from Pantry Project Croydon (based at The Little Coffee Shop) to discuss their Zero Waste solutions for shopping and consuming on the go without plastic.

Hi ladies, can you tell us a bit about your set up?
Happy to – Eleanor and I met via The Little Coffee Shop when it was a sit-down cafe run by mutual friends. When our friends had to relocate (another gift from Covid) we mourned the loss of not only good local friends, but also the space that their cafe held in the community. They had offered a place for people to meet, start fundraisers, discuss local issues, and make friends. The short of it is, we took over. Eleanor already had a background in zero waste as a business and I had been learning about creating less waste in my own life. We felt like this was an opportunity to bring that to South Croydon that we couldn’t miss. I also really, really wanted to learn how to make good coffee so that I wouldn’t have to live without, so aspects of the cafe days have remained intact. Now you can enjoy a coffee and slice of something homemade while you refill your pantry.
It’s also a great way for us to try to pay it forward as far as the community aspect goes. It was a place I could always find someone to talk to. We’re starting a Baby Club now as a way to get parents together who have babies/young kids who have been shut-in by Covid and have missed out on the camaraderie of young parents swapping sleep deprivation stories. The first one is August 11th in South Croydon Recreation Ground across the way.

What made you focus on zero waste?
Covid made a sit-down cafe seem obsolete in this location. There are other sites better suited and the more interested in zero waste we became the more we realized we just couldn’t source easily in our immediate community. If we wanted to talk the talk about creating less waste, we were going to have to make it easier for our neighbours to actually act on our advice (the nice word for the constant guilt trips about destroying the planet and the benefits of giving up on our selfish, throwaway mentality). We were going to have to provide them with groceries and home/personal necessities so that they could create less waste without giving up things they like.

What is Zero Waste?
The term ‘zero waste’ can cover a lot of territory, but I like it because it avoids the quagmire that is ‘green’. ‘Green’ and ‘eco’ and all those more vague terms can be convenient places for companies and products to hide their environmentally un-friendly or short-sighted practices while still hitting current buzzwords. ‘Zero waste’ is more clear: whatever facet of your life we are discussing – be it your choices regarding food, fashion, beauty, art, furnishings, anything – you are creating zero waste. You are leaving behind no piles of useful or unused material that will end up sitting in a landfill. It means choosing products and, often more importantly, ways of consuming that create less hidden waste. No plastic toothpaste tubes. No fast fashion. Not buying your groceries individually swathed in plastics that get thrown away as soon as you get home.
A big one for us is no trash cups – by which we mean no disposable takeaway cups. Because trash cups are often disposed of outside the home we often forget to count them among our garbage footprint, so to speak. Britain uses over 2.5 billion of these cups a year and no matter how ‘eco’ or ‘bio’ we make them, the environmental costs of trashing, recycling, or industrially composting them is not worth the “inconvenience” of bringing your own cup.
At the shop we will provide you with a reusable cup from our cup-library if you don’t have one. Bring it back after your walk or some other day – it’s great, it’s fine, we don’t mind a little inconvenience on our part if it means less trash.

What do you sell and how does it work?
We’re still new and are feeling out what people want or need. We are always happy to have suggestions. We sell coffee, locally baked goods, bread, local eggs, fresh milk and home baked goods. On the grocery side of things we can provide you with your home (cleaning, washing-up, maintenance) needs, as well as lifestyle products that help reduce waste (more local options for no-plastic toothbrushes, toothpastes, soaps, shampoos, brushes, make-up wipes, straws, bottles, bags, etc.) as well as your pantry needs (including cereals, pasts, oats, flours, sugars, etc including gluten free options). Basically everything you need to start creating less waste and being less dependent on plastic-heavy grocery stores and that disposable single-use lifestyle.
We’re aiming to be a bit of a double act: I’d like people to be able to come in, hangout, have a coffee and leave with their zero waste pantry and home groceries (and maybe a brownie or two!) in hand. I will be forever charmed by the woman who came in first week we were open who bought a single egg, a cup of rice and a flat white in her own mug from home – now THAT’S really only consuming what you need!
Just bring in any clean container (or borrow a recycled container in-shop) and fill it with what you need. Pay by weight. Cheap and easy.

There seems to be a big trend for this type of shop across the UK but are there many other places in South London offering this service?
Zero waste is not a trend. I feel like the word implies that creating less waste is a fashionable choice that will change over time. It’s really not. Making less waste is a necessity if we want to leave anything but a giant pile of burning garbage for our kids.

That said, yes, while many people have always tried to make less waste and fix/reuse/repurpose materials instead of junking them immediately, it is getting easier to live zero waste easily around here. Locally you have Filtr, which also doubles as a coffee shop like us, and you have a few excellent places like Pedricks in Caterham and, in Crystal Palace, Roots and Cycles and The Store Cupboard. Then there’s the history of zero waste all over New Zealand and smaller communities in Canada. When I lived in NYC I learned that in the ‘70s the vast majority of small grocery stores and bodegas worked this way — bring in any clean container, fill it with what you’d like, and pay by weight. So simple. Just the wholesale packaging, which is often pretty easy to refill, reuse, or recycle because it’s made for transport and not fancy branding.

What type of customer do you tend to get?
Locals. That’s the easiest way to describe our demographic, I guess. That said, lately we get people from further afield who come because they’re curious, or they’ve been more zero waste-minded for a while and are happy to get something closer to home. My mom, who lived in NYC in the ‘70s, calls it “and old idea marketed to a new generation”. But we get everyone from grandmothers and local councilmen to the young couple who just moved to Croydon and want to do their part for helping keep Croydon bins from overflowing. I guess it’s more of a mindset rather than an age group.

What do you think of Croydon’s green credentials?
Croydon ranks near the top of London’s Green Boroughs List with active work in sustainable planning policy and building developments. In 2020, Croydon council put aside a £250,000 Green Croydon Fund to support projects that enable people to lead greener lives or encourage sustainable lifestyles which help business to make positive changes, so I feel things are moving slowly in the correct direction. The great appetite from within Croydon from grassroots businesses and the people that shop in them who are passionate about the future of our planet is what drives real positive change for Croydon, so we feel we are in a great location! We are looking forward to taking part in Croydon’s Great Big Green Week in September.

What are the biggest challenges running a zero waste shop?
Probably balancing what might be the most zero waste option versus what is a realistic change for people to make. Is everyone going to make their own soap? Probably not. But can everyone make the change of refilling their liquid dish soap bottle instead of buying a new one? Yeah, I think so.
It does take time to get the word out and educate everyone on how to make the change over to more zero waste/plastic free options. When you’re a new business starting during Covid it can seem like bad business to start chanting “no cup, no coffee!” to possible customers, or refusing to print and distribute flyers and adverts because of the paper waste they represent, but you can’t start a zero waste business by slashing at your philosophy because it makes things easier.

What has been your highlight since opening Pantry Project within the shop?
The highlight has not been an individual moment but the continued recognition via customers coming from far and wide seeking out the shop with a shared view that the introduction of a zero waste refill and sustainability-forward shop is a much needed addition to South London. Our shop has only been open for a few months and a continuing highlight is our excellent customers, both regular and new. We are keen to expand our reach with collaborations with other independent representatives of the community and local organisations such as Friends of South Croydon Recreation Ground, dedicated to supporting and improving the South Croydon Recreation Ground for the use of the entire community.

Where would you like The Little Coffee Shop to be in 5 year’s time?
The average family throws away over 2,700 plastic items generated from grocery store purchases every year. With 29k+ residents in South Croydon and Sanderstead and if we can help just 1%-2% of local residents and businesses to adopt a more sustainable approach to consumption we can remove up to 36 000 plastic waste items each year. It can sound cliched, but small changes make a big impact.

For more information on the Pantry Project at The Little Coffee Shop, CLICK HERE.

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