Author: Natalie Ibbott, SOENECS Associate and CEC London Volunteer
It was a drizzly morning, but our spirits were far from dampened while we waited outside Shepherds Bush Market underground station for the arrival of our 30 #CEtourists.
A few months ago, during a Circular Economy Club London event planning session, David Greenfield – lead organiser for CEC London had a brainwave “Why don’t we run a tour for Circular Economy Week London of Circular businesses that we can visit using the Circle Line?!” It sounded slightly crazy, but also a lot of fun and so the idea was born.
In 2018 the Circular Economy Club London team had painstakingly collected, researched and mapped details of every Circular business and initiative in London. And so, with some help from the tube map we selected possible stops for the tour and started talking to our potential hosts. Through or existing network there was not much cajoling required to fill our itinerary.
So, on the morning of 14th June, our #CEtourists started to arrive and it turned out to be a fantastically international delegation. We had Circular Economy professionals, academics and enthusiasts from France, Italy, China, Australia and even a group of students accompanied by their professor from the University of Columbia, New York who had flown over especially for Circular Economy Week London (that’s some field trip!)
Our first stop was Opencell. We walk the unlikely route through the stalls at Shepherds Bush Market before turning into the old Laundry Yard. What may look like a collection of 45 shipping containers is actually a science lab-come-product design studio and it’s pretty special. Opencell offer infrastructure and a like-minded community for early stage startups and designers; enabling them to work in their studios and biolabs and bring their biotech prototyping ideas to fruition quickly.
We are met by Francesco Verderosa and Oksana Bondar from Opencell residents Biohm who start our guided tour. Biohm is the brainchild of Ehab Sayed, whom alongside a team of scientists, designers and innovators is hoping to embed circular practices, sustainability and future technologies in the construction industry. As they put it “To allow nature to lead innovation and create systems that benefit the human, the environment and the economy”. One of Biohm’s leading projects is Triagomy. It’s biomimicry at its finest – an interlocking construction system that can be reused, reconfigured, rebuilt with some impressive carbon, waste and energy savings.
Our tour of Biohm’s materials research lab showcases their focus on using waste as a resource and producing innovative materials. They have waste from many sources, including Heathrow Airport’s grounds maintenance. One of the most impressive products that we are shown is Mycelium. It’s a fungus, it grows, it can ‘learn’ to consume other materials…even plastic (my mind is blown at this point). Biohm have turned it into insulation board that more flame retardant than anything currently on the market.
Fran opens up the front of one container and the smell and colour overwhelms us…oranges. Two floor to ceiling shelving units full of them. “Google give all of their employees freshly squeezed orange juice every day. This is just the waste from yesterday.” I’ve worked in waste management for 15 years and there are times (like the first time I walked on an open landfill site) when the scale of the problem really hits home; this was one of those times. All those oranges, from just one office, in just one city in just one day. But Biohm are using them to create construction materials, it’s a truly circular process and the potential to scale up is enormous.
Our minds full of information and ideas, we make our way to another container where Thomas Fudge, CEO and Founder Of WASE is there to showcase their multi award winning and, quite literally, lifesaving work. WASE have developed a decentralised wastewater treatment system that sustainably treats waste and generates energy. They also provide sustainable wastewater consultation and remote sanitation solutions and their commendable goal is to provide sanitation and clean water to everyone who needs it.
Thomas talks us through some of their projects and the harsh reality of living with inadequate access to sanitation (the day to day for some 2.3 billion people worldwide). It’s something we take for granted so much that we barely think about it; but Thomas paints a grim picture of the spread of disease through lack of sanitation and particularly how this impacts of women during menstruation. It’s all quite sobering.
Thankfully WASE are helping to initiate change. One project in India is working to develop a community biogas sanitation system that uses microbial electrolysis cells to treat wastewater onsite in two days, generating electricity which in turn powers a water purification system to provide safe drinking water for the community.
Very much in the community spirit of Opencell, WASE are also working with Biohm to develop onsite wastewater treatment so that it be reused within a building. The system will generate biogas from the household waste to provide heating and electricity to the household reducing the carbon footprint. The nutrients in the wastewater are a natural fertiliser for the plants, creating an entirely circular system where all waste is reused.
Our final part of our tour of Opencell is a presentation from Dr Thomas Meany who co-founded Opencell with the RCA’s Helene Steiner. Tom was Cambridge University Physicist who met Helene working in biotech labs and they subsequently founded a biotech startup. They developed the idea of providing low-cost, high-tech space and with the help of a specialist property developer and SynbiCITE, an industrial accelerator, managed to convince the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Council to let them use the land. Tom takes us through the theory behind biotechnology (what you get if you cross hardware, software, coding and plants) and then there’s one last chance to hear from Oksana and Fran from Biohm before we head on our way.
Back on the Circle Line and our next stop is Westbourne Park. After a short walk we are standing at the bottom of the Trellick Tower, a 1972 Grade II* listed tower block designed by the architect Ernő Goldfinger. (Quick fact: Ian Fleming hated the Trellick Tower architect so much that he named the James Bond villain after him. Ernő wasn’t too pleased about this, but they settled out of court.) The ground floor and basement are home to our next circular business and social enterprise – Goldfinger Factory and their co-founder, Marie Cudennec tells us about their mission “Combining craft and community to create social and environmental impact.” They do this incredibly well.
We enter through the furniture showroom with beautifully designed and made furniture and homewares destined for both domestic and commercial customers. Marie takes us down to their basement workshop which is full of work in progress including a table, the top of which is made from reclaimed Victorian parquet flooring. Marie tells us “We could have sent the flooring to India or China to have it stripped and ready to use, but that’s not what we’re about.” Everything they do at Goldfinger Factory is focussed on Circular Economy principles and bettering and building the local community. As well as offering designers, makers and craftspeople a platform to develop and sell bespoke furniture and interiors, Goldfinger Factory provides a teaching academy for less advantaged young people. The academy provides training in traditional craftsmanship, specialising in carpentry, upcycling and material reclamation. Goldfinger provides an amazing platform to turn wasted potential and wasted materials into gold (part of their Midas touch philosophy).
It just so happens that Goldfinger Factory has the best Italian café for miles around. The Sicilian chef and his team have prepared a feast for our lunch and there is no danger of any food waste, it’s absolutely delicious.
Full of Sicilian fayre, we hop back on the Circle Line to make our way to Moorgate station. From there it’s just a short walk to the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) and their circular office. LWARB’S space is all reclaimed and recycled. The wooden floor was once the ballroom at the Royal College of Surgeons, there is worktop space made from recycled glass by Urbnrok, tables made from recycled yoghurt pots by Smile Plastics, circular carpet made by Interface and furniture remanufactured by Rype Office (more from them later).
We are met by Phil Guthrie, Collaboration Hub Project Officer who introduces our #CEtourists to LWARB and their work through three main workstreams – Resource London, Advance London and Circular London. As part of the Advance London business support programme SMEs are supported in their transition to circular business models. Their Circular Economy Accelerator Programme is also set up to take startups through a six month programme to commercialise their circular products.
We’re also here to meet two more circular businesses. The first is ALDStone a circular supplier, distributer and consultancy specialising in the built environment. Susana Núria Guerrero López is the CEO founded ALDStone in 2012 and enthusiastically talks to us about her company’s unique systems for thin, lightweight wall and floor materials which are easily installed and can be reused at other locations. This is a revolutionary concept that disrupts conventional business models in construction, where the reuse of materials is generally not the norm and where the amount of waste generated in the build and demolition processes is massive.
ALDStone transforms the lifespan of materials completely. As well as providing a modular solution which is quick to install and change as required, Susana tells us how they also offer rental and leasing, including a system of repair.
Next up is Santiago Navarro, CEO and Founder of Garçon Wines – the world’s first 100% recycled PET flat wine bottle. Santiago’s personality is far from flat and his enthusiasm for his product and the Circular Economy is something that we at CEC London have enjoyed at many of our events this year.
Garçon Wines have already won numerous awards and even as I write this, they are picking up a National Recycling Award. Santiago gives us an overview of his product - 87% lighter and 40% spatially smaller than a glass bottle of the same volume. This means that not only is the bottle made from post-consumer waste, but it’s also saving costs and emissions when it comes transportation. The bottle is based on the classic Bordeaux shape…but it can fit through your letterbox!
Continuing the alcohol theme, we have one last presentation from Conscious Gin who make their product using potatoes that would otherwise not make it to the supermarkets because they are too small (!) and go to waste . It was the second time in a week that we at CEC London had had the pleasure of their company – having been part of our food waste as a resource event just two days before. Unfortunately today we didn’t have time for the Co-founder, Phil White to whip us up some samples but we were nonetheless delighted to introduce Conscious Gin to our #CEtourists. This is Phil’s ‘other’ project; he is already part of LWARB’s accelerator programme with his revolutionary company Sustainability Cloud, a zero waste real time concrete trading platform.
It’s now almost 3pm and time for our last stop on our tour. We head back to Moorgate to find that the Circle Line has been suspended! This was not part of the plan. However, The Northern Line comes to our rescue and we jump on a very hot tube to London Bridge (well, we had to show our visitors what travelling in London is really like) before walking west along the river. There is no better place to complete our journey than the hotbed of Circular SMEs that is Sustainable Bankside.
Just a couple of years ago this place was just a warehouse; but it has been transformed into a hive of activity, hosting 25 sustainable start ups with more than 250 people, co-working space, private offices and meeting rooms. They even have barista training facilities, a bar and a shop selling products from their residents.
Gabriella Hernandez, Communications Lead for Sustainable Workspaces (the parent company of Bankside) gives us a tour before we meet Greg Lavery, Founder of Rype Office who specialise in refurbishing and remanufacturing office furniture and completely refitting office spaces, circular-style. They take the durable parts of existing pieces of furniture and then rebuild around this core structure. This means that customers get what is essentially a new item of furniture, but at a fraction of the cost and with a clear environmental conscience. Greg tells us that not only is Rype Office focused on the environmental benefits of their circular business model; but the refurbishment and remanufacturing is carried out by long-term unemployed people with disabilities. It’s as much about having a positive impact on people’s lives as it is about having a positive impact on the planet.
After Rype, we make our way over to see Lily Courtauld, Director of Content and Tara Button CEO and Founder of Buy Me Once, who are on a mission to find the longest lasing version of everything. It’s quite some ambition, but since launching in 2016 Buy Me Once has gone from strength to strength. Each product on their website has been rigorously researched and tested to ensure that it will last a lifetime (or near enough!), therefore reducing consumption, raw materials and waste. Lily tells us that one of their most defining moments was Ashton Kutcher declaring on Facebook that he loved the ideas behind the website!
And so, to end our day of touring Circular business, for Circular Economy Week London via the Circle Line we and our 30 #CEtourists finish with a toast, or rather we finish with Toast Ale. There are bread and dough puns aplenty from David Ryan ‘Head Breadwinner’ at Toast, a company that have so far rescued over one million slices of waste bread from the sandwich industry and turned them into beer. Around 44% of all bread made in the UK goes to waste; that’s a staggering figure and it’s something Toast Ale are raising awareness of through their product. What’s more, they donate all of their profits to charities, such as Feedback, that work to food charities that are working against food waste and striving to feed people in need.
We finish by sampling some Toast Ale whilst debriefing and chatting about all the amazing companies, products and initiatives that we have seen. Our tourist from Sydney, Australia told me that it was “the best event of the whole of Circular Economy Week London”, which I think means it was a success. It certainly feels like we have learnt and experienced a lot; so here’s to next year’s tour!
The Circular Economy Club London Team are: Dr David Greenfield, Natalie Ibbott, Ana Maria Jaramillo Abadia, Angelique Belle and Sat Pillai.
You can find out about future CEC London events here
See and add to our list of Circular Economy Activities across 67 world cities LINK
See our London Map of over 150 Circular economy businesses: LINK
Check out our London CEC Fast Five videos from March 2018: LINK
Dr David Greenfield