The pine worktops may give off the clean scent of zesty lemon but the kitchen of Taste Derbyshire’s Amanda Volley contains a dirty little secret. Each week she is putting three bags of non-recyclable packaging into her wheelie bin. Desperate to clean-up her act, she reached out to Sue MacFarlane who runs a low impact shop in Belper.
A week before meeting with Belper’s Sue MacFarlane, a woman at the forefront of the battle against single use plastic, I saved all the food packaging which normally gets pushed into the deepest recesses of my 30-litre touch top bin. I might recycle seven wine bottles a week, use tatty tote bags for shopping and my old fridge was removed by the council rather than dumped on a country lane, but the shameful amount of non-biodegradable plastic in my bin bags proved two things; –
1. I am no friend of the earth.
2. I have a serious crisp addiction.
Fortunately, Sue MacFarlane (58), is happy to act as fairy-godmother to the eco-curious. People who want a greener home but are not ready to exchange loo paper for a family cloth (it’s a thing – Google it). Instead of slapping you across the knuckles with a bamboo dish brush, she guides you gently towards greener habits.
Sue runs regular workshops for people who want to cut down on their plastic. A year ago, she launched Sue’s Sustainables – a scoop shop where you can buy loose food for your evening meal and refill on eco-friendly washing-up liquid for the dirty plates afterwards.
“Getting started on the sustainable journey can be daunting,” Sue says when I tell her about the pile of plastic waste my two-person household produces in one week. “People are often made to feel they are at fault for all the environmental problems and, if it’s getting worse, it’s because individuals aren’t doing enough. Big businesses are very skilled at putting responsibility on consumers for something they didn’t create.” Then she looks at a picture of my rubbish; “Oh wow – that is a lot,” she laughs. “I think you’re at the start of the journey towards a low impact life.”
Sue’s own journey began in 2013 when she and husband Will (63), moved to Belper to pursue a simpler life. “Working for a bank in Sheffield, I saw at first hand the waste that goes on a corporate level – like being asked to fly across the country for a business meeting. When the bank restructured, I decided I didn’t want to be part of that world anymore” she explains. “When Will and I moved back to Belper (the couple had previously lived there from 1997-2004) it was a ‘wow’ moment as the town was more vibrant with lots going on in the community. I became the chair of ‘Sharing not wasting’ which re-distributes food not wanted by supermarkets.
In addition to her Green Party commitments, Sue began work as a part-time singing teacher (she is a Natural Voice Practitioner who believes everyone – regardless of talent – should be encouraged to sing) and as a celebrant. She also found time to offer free advice to people who wanted to reduce their own plastic consumption. “I’ve been interested in the environment and ecology all my life,” Sue explains. “In 2017, I decided to look for plastic-free alternatives to everything I was still using in the home and started sharing my tips on-line. The one which really got people talking was finding out that some tea bags contain plastic.”
For Sue, a lot of her personal changes meant embracing thrifty habits of the past; “My late my mum Janice was part of the war generation and it was natural for her to re-use things instead of throwing them away, making and mending clothes and never wasting food,” she says. “I can recall her buying the pretty margarine tubs so she could use them as containers afterwards.”
Sue became so well-known for her friendly tips; a regional TV news channel did a piece about her low impact life and even followed her to the local chippie where she was filmed getting a glass jar filled with mushy peas. But it was never Sue’s intention to launch an eco-business; “It came about in July 2017 when I went along to the opening of Vegan Revelation Cafe and met the owner Leise Taylor,” she recalls. “I became a regular customer and, when the space next-door to her cafe became available, Leise told me Belper needed a vegan food and refill shop. I asked if she had anyone in mind to take it on and Leise replied ‘Yes – you,’.”
Catching up with Leise for a coffee, a week after my meeting with Sue, she tells me there was no one else in the running. “I remember the first time Sue walked into the restaurant – dressed in pink – and she was the picture of positivity. Belper needed a sustainable living shop and there was only one person who could run it,” she laughs. “It had to be Sue.”
Sue decided to take on the business in August 2018 and recalls the mad ‘whoosh’ between that decision and opening a month later. Sue timed her launch to coincide with a local screening of Plastic Ocean – a film which documents the devastating effects of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans. “It’s a life-changing film like Blue Planet II. Once seen – you can’t un-see it. When we opened the next day, we saw many of the film-goers,” Sue recalls.
“In fact, it was mad all day. A lot of my customers said they’d been waiting for it to open. A massive amount of people just said ‘thank you’. They still do, it makes all the effort worthwhile. It’s such a lovely place to work.”
Just over a year later, the shop is a testament to all that effort. Over the past twelve months, she’s doubled the stock and the result is a charming, old fashioned, family-run store (Sue is often joined in the shop by newly retired Will). On scrubbed pine shelves are glass jars of largely organic foods – herbs, nuts, pasta, pulses, seeds, dried fruits etc – which you can buy by weight; and pop into your own container or one of Sue’s paper or cloth tote bags.
Stroll round the shop – which smells divine thanks to the homemade soaps – and you’ll find other kitchen cupboard necessities like cooking oils, stock cubes, condiments, jams and spreads and vegan butters. There’s also a re-filling station full of family staples like shampoo and washing powder. The whole feel is so welcoming, you can’t help but linger. “It’s nice when people bring a coffee in from the cafe and come into the shop to chat or sit by the window and watch the world go by,” says Sue. “We get every type of customer. From those who are so far along in their sustainable journey they can teach me a thing or two and those who are just beginning and need some help.”
There is something splendid about the transition of Belper from 19th Century industrial town – home to the eight air polluting textile mills – to a forward-thinking town blessed with people determined to reduce its carbon footprint. These efforts have also received national recognition; Belper is one of just three English towns on the short-list for the Great British High Street Champion Award 2019 (winner to be announced in November).
“People sometimes ask why Belper is the home to so many green initiatives but it’s full of such wonderful people,” Sue smiles. “There’s 200 or more folk who know how to organise schemes and events. If something needs to happen – we’ll get it done.” And she’s more than happy for a novice like me to join the ranks; “People may start small – like buying loose pasta or switching to a detergent-free laundry egg – but everything counts,” she insists. “It’s just about getting people to understand the earth’s resources are precious and not to waste them. Above all, I want to help people tread more lightly on our planet earth.”
Find Sue’s Sustainables and Vegan Revelation at The Gatehouse, De Bradlelei House, Chapel Street, Belper.
For more information visit www.facebook.com/suessustainables/
Taste Derbyshire Amanda Volley made a list of the top five plastics found in her kitchen waste. Sue MacFarlane kindly offered plastic-free alternatives.
Crisp bags; “You’re buying multi-packs which involve bags in a bag. You can buy crisps in biodegradable bags. However, they’re a high calorie food, so replace them with homemade popcorn.”
Dog food sachets; “Buy his food in a tin or feed him leftovers as long as they don’t contain anything which could be poisonous to dogs.”
Kitchen wipes: “Use old-fashioned dishcloths or cut up old towels to make your own.”
Takeaway cartons. “Invest in some metal tiffin boxes and go along and ask the restaurant to use them for your takeaway.”
Microwave rice packets. “Buy loose rice and store in an airtight container like a glass jar or use an existing plastic container. Remember, throwing out your plastic isn’t the answer – keep using it until it falls apart.”