Our sustainability journey at East Quay
Sally Lowndes, 2022
We’ve had a lot of people ask what sustainability means at East Quay, especially when we claim it as such an integral part of our business at Onion Collective. The answers are multi-faceted and ever changing, so I’ll explore a bit of what we’ve been doing and trying to work out through this blog, and the things we’ve found particularly challenging or interesting.
Sustainability poses difficult questions, for which there aren’t always straightforward answers. We know that to do ‘less harm’ simply isn’t enough any more; we must actively do good if we are to stand a chance in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss in a way that’s just. There are a lot of exciting carbon negative innovations being developed at the moment, particularly around biomaterials, but much of this work is still in its infancy, so for the most part they offer hope, rather than solutions just yet. There is also an increasing awareness that doing good in one area might be offset by harm in others.
Solar, for instance, seems to be an essential early part of the mix as we transition to a low carbon economy, but the level of mining that will be required to bring about the solar revolution is alarming, with many of the minerals and metals that we need designated as ‘critical materials’, meaning they are both essential, and face significant supply challenges. Buildings are also deeply complicated, and the construction industry has been outrageously awful with regard to sustainability for so long that making these changes is a serious challenge. This isn’t to say we think it’s all hopeless – on the contrary, we are passionate about the fight for a better future. Our belief is that sustainability requires ownership at every level as we explore deep and meaningful change to the way we live our lives, and that we are only at the beginning of this process now, which is why it is all still feels so difficult. While we may feel daunted by the task in hand, it is also an extraordinary and exciting time to be alive, when everything could change.
So here, I’ll present the challenges as they really are, and invite you on the journey with us as we explore what sustainability does and could mean for East Quay.
East Quay’s frame is one of concrete and steel, neither of which are typically considered part of the next paradigm of earth-conscious living. We spent months in the office exploring more innovative material options, such as rammed earth, or building with mud from the marina - we even considered setting up a whole new industry to make our own bricks - but none of these options were possible in the end, and we were left with little choice but to use concrete for the main structure due to the nature of the site and availability of materials at the time we were building. Concrete though, does have very good thermal mass. In terms of a building hierarchy for sustainability, having good thermal mass and a tight building envelope are at the top, so the embedded carbon of the concrete is offset by the saved operational carbon, and the decision to use this material, difficult as it was to swallow, was justified.
Similarly, our cladding options became limited as a consequence of the Grenfell tragedy, and we determined metal to be the best choice. The GreenCoat cladding that we opted for adheres to strict environmental standards and is fully recyclable. Though not recycled, there is a clear and easy end-of-life recovery planned into its design, so fits within our circular economy aspirations. It claims strength, lightness and efficiency in its spec, and uses a bio-based paint that is long lasting, non-toxic and doesn’t interfere with its recyclability. It’s a company that really does appear to be working hard to be part of the solution.
Eco paint that absorbs CO2 as it dries
The internal walls throughout the building have been painted with Graphenstone Ecosphere paint; a natural, highly breathable paint that absorbs CO2 as it dries. According to its credentials, we have sequestered 72kg of CO2 in the painting of East Quay. Eco paints can be a difficult choice to make as they are costly and generally (in my experience) not wipeable, but we have been impressed by the quality of this paint, and it has virtually no detectable odour. This feels like a really exciting and innovative development.
Despite the complications discussed at the start of this piece, we believe that solar is currently still a necessary part of the transition to a greener and circular economy, because the need to decarbonise is so pressing. Both solar PV and thermal are incorporated into the build, and will be located on the roof of the core of the building. Due to unforeseen complications, the install of these were delayed, but they should be with us imminently. Meanwhile, we only source our energy from renewable sources, and both our electricity and gas come to us via Green Energy UK, which is 100% renewable – in line with our sustainable procurement strategy.
Reused and sustainable products:
Where we can we give new life to many items that we found. You can find various pieces of reclaimed furniture throughout East Quay, from an old workbench in our shop, to an old toolboard reincarnated as a splash back in one of our pods. The pods, in general, perform well in terms of the items they contain, from reclaimed flooring and timber, to recycled paper countertops from Richlite.
The mattresses, toppers, duvets and pillows are handmade, 100% natural (most are wool) and biodegradable, Fairtrade and organic, sourced from Natralmat in Devon. Bedlinen is from Rise and Fall and is made from organic cotton. Similarly – our uniforms are all made from organic cotton, from Earth Wardrobe. We mostly use Bio-D products to clean with, which are made in the UK from ethically sourced, vegan and natural ingredients. We buy these in 20l tubs and refill in-house to reduce packaging and pollution, and promote better health and wellbeing.
Operational waste is also an issue we’re exploring – how we reduce, reuse and recycle and compost the waste we create in the building to best effect. We’re currently running trials at Biomill on the old Mill site, to grow mushrooms on our spent coffee grounds, waste cardboard and used (recycled and unbleached) handtowels. We recycle and commercially compost a high proportion of the operational waste created at East Quay but once we’ve monitored the food waste for a while longer, we will look to implement an in-house solution for processing it ourselves into a usable compost.
In the shop we have attempted to mostly source from other social enterprises and charities; companies like Arthouse Unlimited, who present the artistic talents of adults living with complex, neuro-diverse and physical support needs, while using ethical and organic produce, and Nemi Tea, who employ refugees throughout their business to help them to integrate into the UK, and make plastic free, organic tea bags. Meanwhile, we also stock a range of our favourite ‘change the world’ books, that explore issues like the real significance of connection in communities, imagination, and the need for a multi-species lens as we adapt.
East Quay Kitchen
In the restuarant, we have worked hard to create a menu that is low on meat and fish, opting for more sustainable protein sources like mussels, that sequester carbon in their shells, and beans and pulses. It isn’t an entirely vegetarian or vegan menu, but vegan options account for around 50% of the food available. We are working with our suppliers to provide positive choices for our customers, and will soon be moving to buy a good proportion of our vegetables from Plowright Organic – an organic vegetable farm in nearby Nether Stowey. We have also just begun working with Westcott Farm – a farm in Brompton Ralph under new(ish) ownership, that is attempting to farm old breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens in a regenerative fashion. This means their meat is slow grown, organic and pasture fed. They plant crops like red clover in their fields for the English Longhorns to eat and practice very high levels of animal welfare. Westcott Farm meat will be making its way onto our specials board over the coming weeks. Regenerative animal farming is a fascinating area, with all sorts of aspects to be explored, like the length of the grass that you put the animals out on means that some of it can be trodden into the ground, sequestering carbon in the process.
We also buy from Hodmedods, who supply UK grown beans and pulses; the most local craft cider from Nick’s small batch, unsprayed, handpicked apples at Watchet Cider Company; organic juices from Luscombe in Devon; organic, plastic-free and delicious tea from the Exmoor Tea Company, and incredible coffee from Brazier in Wellington – who work directly with the communities they source from, and are constantly exploring and supporting better options for coffee production, like shade grown beans and natural washing via fermentation. Our hot chocolate comes from an amazing social enterprise called Refuge, which uses ethically sourced ingredients and uses its profits to support victims of human trafficking in Northern Ireland. We also only serve tap water, and hand out recycled polyester blankets when it gets cold, instead of heating the outside air.
In terms of travel, we have installed a series of bike racks and encourage lift sharing and use of public transport where possible, but most significantly, we are offering local people employment, which means they don’t need to travel for work. We now directly employ 27 people, and our longest commute is from Lydeard St Lawrence. Only three of our team drive to work with any regularity. Many other jobs have been created and supported through East Quay, from apprenticeships at the Two Rivers handmade papermill, to artists and makers in the studio spaces.
East Quay as a place to imagine a better future
Most significantly though, is what this building should enable as we begin to navigate a different world. We want East Quay to be a space where we as a community can gather, connect and dream – where we can imagine the future we want to be part of so that we can plan for and own our adaptation in the face of a dramatically changing climate. The gallery programme has climate and change incorporated as one of its three core themes, with an exhibition that explores adaptation and a hopeful future programmed for May 2022. We will also slowly incorporate mechanisms for gathering hopes and sharing ideas. We want local people to be at the helm as we shift from the past reality to the new, as we try to understand why the economy hasn’t been working for us, and how we can change it, and we desperately need social infrastructure to enable this. East Quay has been designed and will develop with this in mind; it is a place where creativity and joy will bring us together, and where a new world can be conceived, from the ground up.
Come visit, be part of the gatherings, see an exhibition, taste the food, stay in the pods. We'd love to see you. More info here: www.eastquaywatchet.co.uk Instagram @eastquaywatchet Facebook /eastquaywatchet Twitter @eastquaywatchet