In the third of our series of interviews connecting with other organisations in Wales which share our core values of waste reduction, skill sharing and community cohesion, I met up with Chloe Masefield. Chloe and her husband Robin set up and manage Natural Weigh in Crickhowell, which was the first zero waste shop in Wales. I was intrigued to find out more about their initiative and what motivated them into taking this brave step:

“Robin and I both worked in environmental sciences at a policy level, but we really wanted to address the plastic challenge facing our planet in a practical and more urgent way. We knew that as consumers it is often difficult to shop without using packaging. We then had a “lightbulb” moment on a trip to Totnes in Devon when we discovered the first zero waste shop in the UK, Earth.Food.Love. We thought that it was a fantastic idea and something that we could put into practice in Wales.  

We were living just outside Newport at the time and carried out lots of market research in order to choose where to open our shop. We discovered that the residents of Crickhowell demonstrated a high level of environmental awareness and, as luck would have it, a shop unit was vacant in the town. This had come about because the local community bought a pub (The Corn Exchange) in the town centre as it was determined not to allow a large supermarket chain to occupy it. This pub was turned into 3 shopping units and 3 apartments. The location was perfect for our idea and we had tremendous support from the local community, partly because many also had a stake in the shop which we rented.”

I was keen to find out more about how Natural Weigh helps to reduce waste, one of Repair Café Wales’ prime objectives, especially pertinent this month, as we are being encouraged to think more about becoming plastic free each July as part of #plasticchallenge: https://www.plasticfreejuly.org/

“Eliminating household waste is key to what we do. Something like one third of single-use plastic is used in packaging food, so consumers find it extremely difficult to avoid using packaging for dry goods such as pasta and rice. So, as our customers can bring in their own containers and buy products packaging free, they are able to reduce their waste. We buy most of our products in 25kg paper sacks or in reusable containers.   We also look at the waste generated in our whole supply chain. We try to reuse where we can, utilising the circular economy (Cerys can you out a hyperlink here to RCW website circular economy?). For example, the drums which hold liquid products such as washing up liquid and shampoos/conditioners are returned, cleaned and reused. We have local suppliers who provide honey and cider vinegar in their own containers which are returned to them for reuse. We also sell local apple juice which is sold in returnable bottles just like the old fashioned milk service.

Where we receive packaging, we find ways of reusing it. For example, the paper sacks and cardboard boxes are given to local smallholders so that they can use them as mulch on their allotments. There is a recycling facility in Cwmbran which specialises in “stretchy” plastic, so if we get any of this, we send it there. We also use Terracycle (https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/) for the more difficult to recycle plastic.  The only thing that we have to send to landfill is the sellotape which we remove from our packaging as, currently, we are unaware of how this can be recycled.”

Skill sharing is also one of Repair Café Wales’ core values as our visitors are invited to sit with their volunteer repairers to watch and discuss the repair, enabling skills to be passed on. I wondered to what extent this was relevant to Natural Weigh’s activities:

“This is not really our area, although we have given some talks to local community groups such as the WI and rotary club as well as local schools. That said, we regularly have important conversations with our customers as their reasons for visiting us vary widely. Some are a little overwhelmed as they haven’t seen anything like Natural Weigh before and enter the shop with a single use coffee cup or plastic bottle of water. They are interested in finding out more and we ask them whether they have seen alternatives or know about what they can do if they want to stop using disposable coffee cups and water bottles. Other customers may start by coming in and refilling their container with washing up liquid, but gradually make more and more changes becoming hooked on using reusable containers. 

We often have very inspiring conversations. For example, one of our customers works in a school canteen and really wanted to do something to reduce the amount of single use plastic which was used every day, but was too nervous to bring up the subject at work. Eventually she did and the school now uses less plastic and she has set up a Terracycle crisp packet collection which has gone down really well which is very exciting. So, although we don’t really do events, we can discuss and encourage customers who want to make a change but are not quite sure about what to do.”

It seemed from our conversation that community cohesion is an integral part of Natural Weigh, another of Repair Café Wales’ core values:

“We have a very unusual community focus. Crickhowell is full of small independent shops  and it is usual for the business owners to be behind the counter. Robin and I work in the shop together and we really feel like we are part of a community, although we have needed to take a step back with the current COVID-19 situation. 

We rent the shop from the limited company which was set up to buy the pub and which has over 250 members. This effectively meant that we had the immediate support of over 250 local people. From the outset, we were very excited as they really helped with the project and wanted it to succeed. In fact, we will shortly be moving to a bigger unit within the premises as we are now able to expand.”

As you probably know, we have been unable to hold our pop up cafes since March, but we have been streaming events instead. I wanted to know a little bit more about how the COVID-19 situation has affected business: 

“As soon as lockdown began, we stopped national deliveries but continued to make local deliveries. Our staff and customers were really understanding, so we were able to find ways of continuing to trade. The shop is small so only one member of staff could work at any time, so in the beginning our staff had to work alone and pack orders all day. Some of our customers then volunteered to make the deliveries for us. We also opened one day a week, but, to lower the risk of cross contamination, our customers were unable to bring their own containers and had to use our paper bags instead. 

I’m pleased to say that we are now open 5 days a week, but still do deliveries on Monday as we pack orders when the shop is closed.  We have needed to make adjustments, sanitising the handles regularly and we can only allow one person in the shop at a time. Everyone has been really understanding, so that’s been fantastic. Customers can take their time in the store and have the space to enjoy their shopping experience.”     

So, if you’ve been inspired and would like to find out more, have a look at Natural Weigh’s website: https://naturalweigh.co.uk/

Join us next time to find out more about another Welsh organisation which shares our core values.