Industry for Watchet
Imagining a better future: Onion Collective and Biohm
In partnership with Biohm, a leading bio-tech company, we plan to establish a brand new, first of its kind bio-recycling industry on the old paper mill site. It will use mycelium (fungus) to break down waste, and from this create new, environmentally positive products.
Our ambition is to transform the local economy, become a global player in the bio-based materials revolution, and a pioneer of the next economy which values people and the environment as much as profit.
The loss of Wansbrough paper mill in 2015 was keenly felt by this community; with it went 175 jobs and a deep rooted sense of industrial identity and pride. The mill had been in operation for 250 years – it was a trailblazer for the era of recycling.
Faced with the mill’s closure, and the loss of all the other major industry of this place, Watchet had a choice: we could accept the spiral of decline played out by so many other coastal communities that had lost their main employer, or we could seek to define a new future, fit for this place and for the future. With seed funding from the FORE Trust, Onion Collective began work to identify what a new time, place and community appropriate industry could be – to replace the 175 jobs that were lost, and to reinvigorate the town. We carried out a year-long, feasibility study that mapped local assets and sought to understand current opportunities. Through the process we spoke to countless academics, professionals and local stakeholders, scoured the research and identified a short-list of potential industries—including tech-enabled elderly care, nuclear supply chain, and even entomophagy (insect farming!)—to be scored against our pre-defined community outcomes. At the end of this process we determined bio-based material development (creating products from nature) to be the best industrial opportunity for the area.
It is becoming ever more apparent that the UK's recycling infrastructure is not suitable for the complexities of advanced synthetic (plastic) materials. However, there exist living organisms that are capable of consuming complex synthetic waste and transforming them into new materials. Fungi are amongst those wondrous organisms that have the potential to become living processors in future recycling plants. Such findings stem from the science of biomimetics, which extracts principles from biological processes and systems to solve our problems. It is driven by the realisation that our most prized inventions exist in more elegant, eco-sensitive, efficient and effective forms in nature.
We aim to establish the bio-recycling plant on the old paper mill site. To begin with we intend to work directly with major manufacturers and industry partners, using their waste as a feedstock for mycelium (the vegetative part, or roots of fungi), and the resultant grown material as a valuable resource for product manufacture. We will have two facilities running side by side: one will be used to develop known and proven processes, such as transforming agricultural and organic waste, like coffee chaff or corn husks, into insulation board and other building materials. (We are awaing final funding confirmation for this part of the facility.) The second will be a plastics research facility. Unlike traditional recycling, biorecycling using mycelium could take plastic out of the environment permanently, creating biodegradable, carbon negative products in its place, so solving one of the planet's biggest conundrums. This is new, but extremely promising and extraordinarily exciting, research. This plastics research facility is being funded by Waitrose Plan Plastic.
Profits from the facility will be reinvested in further R&D work, facility development and the community – reconnecting people with economics and bringing agency and aspiration. And we are in the process of setting up a community panel to feed into decision making.
Together, Onion Collective and Biohm believe that this Industry for Watchet could become a ground-breaking exemplary demonstration project for a community-aligned model of industrial innovation; a new way of doing business that will prove that another – better – way, is possible.
To find out more here is the filmed public meeting that took place on Thursday 11th June 2019 in Watchet.