Seeds of change: Zero waste communities in Wales

As we journey toward zero waste, the challenge becomes more about capturing hearts and minds. Kate Dickinson talks to grassroots groups in Wales that have created a blueprint for others to follow.

Litter pickers in Snowdonia join a beach clean

Recycling is now a habit, for most people. Householders can put a wide range of things in recycling bins or boxes and take a lot more to recycling centres, possibly as much as 95 per cent of their waste – yet recycling rates are a long way off this. And if the ultimate goal is zero waste, there’s the question of that last five per cent.

To get there, the challenge is increasingly one of helping people engage with the idea of avoiding waste and improving the environment. It’s a challenge to overcome cynicism and apathy, for each person to feel responsible and engaged with their actions.

There is a robust body of evidence to suggest that the social norms approach is an effective method for driving change. This is hardly surprising; everyone appreciates the power of peer pressure to encourage behaviour that’s different to when a person acts alone. So when grassroots groups in a community take action, this can have a tremendous influence on others in the area, in a way that conventional marketing struggles to match.

Of all the UK nations, Wales is forging ahead with recycling and reuse in an effort to become a zero 
waste nation by 2050, in line with the government’s ‘Towards Zero Waste’ strategy. Welsh Government funding for waste-reduction projects is growing, but a number of emerging grassroots projects show how zero waste ideas can develop within communities without external guidance or investment – and how these communities can come together to bring about social and environmental change.

From beach cleans and litter picks to plastic-free shops, reuse libraries and repair cafes, the case studies shared here represent a tiny fraction of the number
 of communities in Wales that have come together to reduce their waste. Each group is different, but there are some common threads that bring them together in the ways they have utilised online and real life connections to develop their networks and become embedded in their community.

“A lot of people feel a bit helpless, or that their contribution might be insignificant, but when they join a group they can see that there’s other people doing the same”

Beach cleans

Snowdonia Beach Clean was set up last year by three regional representatives for the marine pollution charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS): Meg Pugh, Bella Sanderson and Laura Sanderson. SAS originated as a grassroots campaign by Cornwall’s surfing community but has since grown exponentially, with a network of volunteers who organise beach cleans up and down the UK – there are 22 representatives in Wales alone.

“We’ve grown up on the coast and we see the effects of human consumption on our beaches every day,” explains Laura. The team organises regular beach cleans, at least one a month, across a wide area of the Llyn Peninsula. The connection with SAS has been crucial, with the wider charity providing training on pollution, conservation issues and working with local communities, as well as practical tools such as boxes and litter pickers – but the group has also grown as a separate entity via the use of social media, sharing pictures of beach cleans on Instagram and Facebook.

Online engagement has been key to encouraging participation: “We began by putting up posters on social media and between 60 and 80 people started to turn up to each beach clean to help out.” Since then, Laura says, they have been “overwhelmed” by support from the local community, as well as from tourists. Businesses have also been keen to get involved, providing refreshments for volunteers and prizes for collecting the “most unusual or largest item”, while the team is now working with local schools on the Ocean School project, an ‘immersive, hands-on education programme’ designed by SAS.

“We realised that the community wanted to see a change and that we could provide the logistics for them to come together and make a difference,” says Laura, adding that now, “more people in the community are carrying out their own mini beach, river and mountain cleans and posting them on social media to highlight the issue.”

Plastic-free communities

Mair Davies of Plastic Free Llangollen with then Welsh Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn
Mair Davies of Plastic Free Llangollen with then Welsh Environment Minister Hannah Blythyn

SAS has accredited a number of towns with ‘plastic- free’ status, the first being Penzance – which inspired the Snowdonia team. One community that has been particularly successful in Wales is Llangollen, in the county of Denbighshire.

Towns can achieve plastic-free status if they can prove they have achieved five plastic-free objectives, including mobilising the community, working with businesses and engaging local government. Llangollen was awarded plastic-free status by SAS in December 2018 after a concerted effort by Mair Davies, a member of the local Friends of the Earth (FoE) group and chair of the Plastic Free Llangollen group.

Set up in the spring of that year, the group emerged out of community concerns about plastic use, says Mair. Without funding, except where printing costs were covered by FoE, the group went out into the community to meet with businesses and schools and discuss ways to cut down on plastic usage.

While Llangollen FoE holds monthly meetings, at which Plastic Free Llangollen is discussed, “social media plays a big part in engaging the wider audience”, says Mair. The Facebook group for the project has over 330 members, which is around 10 per cent of the town’s entire population.

Connecting businesses and residents has been a central part of the campaign, with 10 local businesses signed up to become ‘plastic-free pioneers’ and reduce the amount of packaging they use and sell. The group created infographics to share online, which direct residents towards waste-reducing businesses, while wider campaigns such as Refill and Ditch the Straw have also been welcomed in the community.

“It’s brilliant that so many people have been engaged in the project, but we’re keen to see them engage in the broader issue now,” Mair says. Since gaining plastic-free status, she and the group have not been lax; Llangollen FoE held ecobrick workshops at local community centres, explaining how unrecyclable plastic waste can be turned into building materials. This year, Mair is turning her attention to more niche waste streams, organising crisp and biscuit packet recycling in the town, setting up
more than 10 collection points for the items, which will be sent to recycling company TerraCycle. Around 20 kilogrammes of packaging have so far been collected.

“At first, I felt like I was shouting into a void, but within a week or two it really took off and now people really feel like they have ownership of the space”

Online networks

It is clear that social media has a significant role to play in the success of grassroots zero waste ventures – and there is considerable overlap between online and real life communities. One example of this is the Facebook group ‘Zero Waste South Wales’, which was launched
by Barry-based Amy Greenfield and her partner Stuart Burnell. “We were aware of a few people who were doing things in different places across South Wales,” says Amy, “but no one was really connected up.” Now, the group has snowballed, and Amy and Stuart are planning to launch a physical zero waste shop with the name Awesome Wales.

The Facebook group was set up at the end of February and has swelled to over 600 members from across the region. Amy says the only struggle was the initial few weeks when engagement was low: “I felt like I was shouting into a void, but within a week or two it really took off and now people really feel like they have ownership of the space.”

Users – many of them businesses – share advice, ideas, successes and waste-free products on the active page, which sees new posts daily. It is clear that in developing a zero waste network, making genuine connections is important. “We encourage people to share themselves because it adds more voices to the conversation, but also means people can actually connect – otherwise it can all be a bit faceless.”

Amy promoted posts to local selling pages as a way to reach a wider area of the community, which she says has helped to grow the network beyond people who are already actively involved in the zero waste world. “A lot of people feel a bit helpless, or that their contribution might be insignificant, but when they join a group
they can see that there’s other people doing the same, whether that’s going to a TerraCycle recycling point or doing a beach clean.”

A cafe owner in Llangollen who was accredited with a plastic free mark
Small business owners in Llangollen have received plastic free accreditation from Surfers Against Sewage
Zero waste shops

Awesome Wales will be the first zero waste shop in Barry and the Vale of Glamorgan. It is a direct attempt to “connect the online and the offline”, says Amy. The online network was crucial in gauging the level of support for such a project and connecting with other businesses. “Once we set up the group we could see that there was a demand for what we wanted to do – that really helped to accelerate our plans.” This led to a crowdfunder campaign being set up, which has raised over £1,800 at the time of writing.

As well as selling products without plastic packaging, such as shampoo bars, the shop will have collection points for TerraCycle waste streams, and Amy has used the group to canvas opinion about which items would be most useful to collect for the local community – as well as finding local wheelchair users to test the shop’s layout for accessibility.

As the shop will be a social enterprise, the pair “want to make it as beneficial to the community as possible.” This means workshops as well as sales, with a monthly repair cafe, where people can bring their electronics for repair, as well as cooking workshops and a nappy library, which will enable parents interested in reusables to try out a set of cloth nappies.

A library of things

The nappy library in Barry is a version of the ‘library of things’ concept, which enables local people to share and borrow useful objects – like lawnmowers, power drills and sewing machines – within a community rather than each buying them and using them infrequently.

Wales’ first library of things is called Benthyg (Welsh for ‘borrow’) and is situated in Rumney, Cardiff. The idea for Benthyg first emerged in 2016 when founder Becky Harford found herself with a big garden and no money to buy a lawnmower. Research led her to the UK’s first library of things, SHARE in Frome, Somerset – a project that provided support and a toolkit for Becky to get started in Wales.

Benthyg is run by Rumney Forum, a charity set up
 by Becky out of a campaign to save the local library. Rumney Forum bought the library building from
Cardiff City Council and progressed with Becky’s idea
to develop a new kind of library – Benythg. Two years later, the project has been awarded funding from the landfill tax communities scheme and now has nearly 100 members, lending out 5-10 items during its six opening hours every week. “If we were open all the time and could become part of people’s daily routine, that would rocket,” says Becky.

The fact that the project is situated in such a central location in Rumney is crucial to the success of the project. “It needs to be at the heart of the community.” What’s important about Benthyg is not so much waste reduction as it is community building.

While connections with other waste reduction projects are invaluable, Becky says – such as the local repair cafe, which will fix broken items for free – it’s partnerships within the wider community, with food banks, Scouts and Brownies, retirement groups, that cement the project as a fixture in the local area. Schools are another good place to reach out to people who aren’t already engaged with zero waste ideas – local pupils took Benthyg flyers home to their parents. “This isn’t just about environmental stuff, it’s about making things accessible for everyone. It’s important not just to keep in your own little environmental bubble”.

Repair and reuse

Repair cafes are growing in popularity across Wales 
as projects that connect communities around a waste reduction ideal, with volunteers helping local residents to fix their broken items rather that consign them to the scrap heap. Re-Cycle Swansea is a similar venture but with a more specific focus, with volunteers repairing and refurbishing used bicycles for resale.

The project, which was set up in 2006, was created
in response to “people’s dislike of waste, which is particularly acute for something as personal as the bicycle,” says co-founder and manager Ian Williams. After an initial pot of funding from the Countryside Council ran out, Re-Cycle is now financially self- sufficient. Ian explains: “Since about 2010 the project has sustained a full time manager and seasonal, additional mechanics and trainers – the income comes largely from donated bicycles, in part from servicing and repairs, and from the provision of vocational training.”

“This isn’t just about environmental stuff, it’s about making things accessible for everyone. It’s important not just to keep in your own little environmental bubble”

Though local government has been unwilling to supply waste bikes to the group, members of the public donate up to six used bikes a day, and 80 per cent of those are restored for sale or for use by volunteers. Between one and three volunteers a week (including students, homeless people and asylum seekers) take part in a two-day programme to learn how to service and repair bicycles. Per week, around 5-10 bikes leave the project for reuse, and local GPs now refer patients to Re-Cycle. In addition, Ian says the group often works with “many socially excluded groups who may find public transport expensive.”

Compared to some of the other case studies in this article, Re-Cycle is firmly established on the Swansea scene and as a successful, self-funded waste reduction and reuse project, is an example of where these grassroots projects could end up.

Start them young

School children in high vis jackets on a litter pick
Children from an Eco-School on a litter pick in the community

Engagement with schools has been central to many of the campaigns discussed previously – but what are schools doing themselves to tackle waste in their communities? Bryony Bromley is an education officer with Eco-Schools, an international education programme run in Wales by charity Keep Wales Tidy. While the programme receives Welsh Government funding, used in part to maintain the nine full and part-time education officers, none of the schools signed up receive financial support.

Eco-Schools officers provide an initial environmental review that can help pupils identify problem areas in their school. The pupils are then the driving force behind their own projects – which can cover a wide range of subjects, though waste reduction is a hot topic at the moment. The programme works best when the children have “ownership” over their ideas, explains Bryony. In fact, she is frequently inspired by projects that the pupils have created themselves, such as at Cross Ash Primary School in Monmouthshire, where children decided to paint their noses red to raise money for Comic Relief instead of buying plastic disposable noses.

The activity of school children can have a ripple effect in the wider community. In Seaview Community Primary School in Swansea, for example, children had noticed that on bin collection days there was often a big increase in litter – so they organised a community event with parents to raise awareness of the problem. Spurred on by the efforts of pupils taking responsibility for recycling, Bryony says, “they have then noticed the increase in the amount of people who are recycling their waste.”

This article was taken from Issue 96

The more established Eco-Schools increasingly “make those links out into the community,” says Bryony. “[Schools] are the hubs of the community and they can have quite a wide influence.” She notes that there are a growing number of schools that have now signed up to TerraCycle recycling schemes – acting as waste collection hubs that draw in and link out to members of the wider community. Bryony mentions pubs and hospitals that are now bringing crisp packet waste to their local school for recycling. “By engaging the parents they are slowly seeing change.”

Mighty oaks from little acorns

Building connections can be difficult, especially for those without an initial network around them, but social media has undoubtedly reshaped the potential for zero waste activity. As evidenced here, it’s helping communities to inspire, engage and connect.

These examples highlight how reaching out to established groups can prove fruitful, but meeting local residents face-to-face is just as important and can help to build connections with people outside of the ‘environment bubble’ – those who might not otherwise get involved.

Inevitably, schools have an important function in small neighbourhoods, often acting as a hub for waste reduction projects, encouraging further action from children, parents and the wider community. And once the community has ownership of a project, it can run and run, leading to new ideas, new connections and networks that reach across Wales.