Meet Ernie: the Waste Warrior on Wheels
A controversial statement, but … there was some good to come from the pandemic.
It introduced us to our communities, and showed shopping locally to be convenient, personal and more reliable and sustainable than our shaky global supply chains. It confronted the connection between human health and that of our planet while offering hope in demonstrating its potential for recovery.
Roads were safer, wildlife bolder, skies clearer, air cleaner, neighbourhoods quieter, birds louder. Indeed, Earth Overshoot Day – the annual date when humanity has used all the biological resources that the Earth regenerates during one year – was pushed forwards by a full month in the wake of the 2020 lockdowns.
There can’t have been many people that didn’t emerge from it reassessing their lives, their priorities, their relationships, their wider responsibilities, and deciding to make changes.
For North London husband and wife team Lisa Jones and Stephen Thomas, that became The People’s Pantry – a mobile refill shop and delivery service, conceived in lockdown and designed to raise awareness and tackle the problem of plastic waste head-on. The central tenet was and remains to make plastic-free shopping as convenient, accessible and fun as possible; all focused around Ernie, a 1972 milk float.
Milk floats were the original refill solution, neatly, and the original circular economy; delivering fresh milk to UK doorsteps from the 1930s onwards in these comical, battery-powered vehicles. Back then, the electric design was less about cutting emissions and all about not waking their customers on their early morning rounds.
To a signature whir and gentle clink, they delivered milk in glass bottles, which were then left out on the next delivery for collection and reuse. The service continues in pockets of the UK, but the traditionally designed, electric milk float has been largely replaced by vans. Such estimates suggest a mere 15% of milk float stock remain.
Ernie is a rare piece of British heritage then, which, fifty years on, is still running on his original batteries and is once again supplying packaging-free staples to his community. His flatbed has been converted into a refill shop, with the two sides now flipping open to reveal banks of gravity and scoop dispensers shoehorning up to 200 products into the space.
Across pantry, bathroom and eco-cleaning staples, all are carefully sourced from independents, are mainly organic and are vetted for their sustainability and ethical credentials. Including their delivery packaging, with priority given to those operating a closed loop system of reuse. They source locally where possible, to reduce food miles and support small businesses, and dispense the whole in precise, just-as-much-as-you-need volumes to discourage food waste.
“Setting up The People’s Pantry has gloriously revealed a parallel, zero waste world of impassioned independents,” says Lisa Jones, who was previously a Food & Drink PR, “all prioritising integrity, transparency and authenticity over profit. Each with a story, many working with friends or family, all determined to make a difference (as well as exceptional products), and all energised by a collective cause.”
They include local honey, craft beers, roasted coffee beans and even organically grown, cut flowers, sourced within a mile of The People’s Pantry HQ; as well as fresh oat milk and authentic Italian pasta, both made in London. And a collaboration with a local fresh produce initiative, which purely supports urban and small organic farmers in and around the capital, championing ‘fresh, local, organic and seasonal’ as watchwords for the fruit and veg that we consume.
The People’s Pantry refers to this meticulous sourcing as “taking the leg work out of doing your bit”, and to that end, they also offer three refilling options to make it doable for as many as possible.
Customers can find Ernie at a regular list of public locations, where he is hosted by parks and independent businesses and organisations with like-minded principles. There they can refill into their own containers or into an onboard upcycled supply, mostly donated by The People’s Pantry community. Alternatively, they can shop online for a weekly doorstep delivery by electric Ernie, packaged in repurposed, returnable containers – then left out for collection and reuse, just like that milkman. Or they can book the float to come to their road, bringing the refill store to their door.
Generally, this will then involve sharing the details on their street WhatsApp group, via a supplied e-flyer, and turning the visit into a community event: catching up, or putting faces to names, while filling up.
“Some even lay on tea urns, bunting and charity cake stalls for a full-on, neighbourly knees-up,” Jones explains, “which encapsulates everything that we hoped the business would become: a feelgood community resource, reducing waste, leveraging bottom-up consumer power and sharing. A united effort, in short. We’ve had customers circulating plant cuttings, excess produce from their gardens, fertiliser from their wormeries .. you name it. Wherever waste and excess lurks, our customers’ rally!”
In this spirit of sharing, they also carry a library of environmental children’s books to hand out for return when read.
“The quirkiness of Ernie and the novelty of refilling really appeals to children,” says Jones. “It is so satisfying to see parents bringing their children along and using the experience to explain the need for it. You are never too young to start learning about protecting our planet. In fact, we plan to develop our outreach work in the next year, taking Ernie into school playgrounds as a focus for talking about the plastic crisis and its role in climate change.”
And never was this more urgent. In the first citizen science-based survey of its kind, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic joined forces in July 2022 to find out how much and what sort of plastic waste was discarded by UK households. Close to a quarter of a million people took part in the week-long Big Plastic Count and the results were shocking, translating into 96.7 billion pieces of plastic waste thrown away by the UK per year. Of which a mere 12% is likely to be recycled.
“The results send a clear and urgent message,” said Greenpeace, “recycling is not enough – we are producing far too much plastic packaging waste to deal with, so we must turn off the plastic tap.”
For The People’s Pantry, ‘reuse’ is a key strategy here, that is achievable by all, says Jones. “We call our model Slow Shopping because, in the same vein as the Slow Movement, it’s about doing things properly, at the right speed, caring, in a spirit of togetherness.”
“There is also the small matter of Ernie’s top speed being 18mph!” she adds.