Shrewsbury's Waste Warrior Ali Thomas in action at the Queen's Baton Relay Celebrations in 2022.
Ali Thomas is one of those people whose quiet contributions revolutionise entire communities. She is our 'Waste Warrior' here in Shrewsbury. Through her innovations such as the town-wide reusable Shrewsbury Cup scheme, the Shrewsbury Food Hub, which redistributes leftover food and her business 'Zero Waste Events', she is determined to end our throwaway culture. She speaks to Simon Cousins.
When Ali Thomas went to work at the Hay Festival in 2017 with ‘Zero Waste Events’, the company she had set up six years earlier, she was horrified to discover 350 wheelie bins crammed full of discarded single- use coffee cups, collected during the week-long festival.
“There is nothing sustainable about that,” she said to Andy Fryers, the festival’s Sustainability Director. She admits to feeling “hot and fierce” at the end of a sweltering day and he could do nothing but agree. So they both went on a hunt for a reusable coffee cup to use the following year.
The cup they found was used at the 2018 Hay Festival and the number of those wheelie bins plummeted from 350 to 25: a 92% evaporation of the waste stream. Since its launch in April 2019, the same cup has been used here in our town for the ‘Shrewsbury Cup’ scheme. It is made from 100% polypropylene, manufactured in a range of eye-catching colours and is available at 20 independent cafés in Shrewsbury, not to mention its rentals to PTAs, football team caterers. gymnastic clubs, toddler groups and to The Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. It has been hugely successful.
The Shrewsbury Cup is available at 20 participating cafés all across town - including Ginger & Co (pictured here) - for just a £1 deposit
The Shrewsbury Cup Scheme - in Six Simple Steps
1. You arrive at a coffee counter and order your drink.
2. You say: “Please can I have that in a Shrewsbury Cup?”
3. You ‘hire’ a cup by paying a £1 deposit.
4. You enjoy your drink.
5. You return the cup to any participating café in the town, either straightaway or whenever you next visit one.
6. You get your £1 back.
The cafés do their own washing up, so it’s all very simple. And the environmental benefits of ‘The Shrewsbury Cup’ are irrefutable.
“We use 7 million single-use cups a day in the UK,” Ali tells me. “Half a million of those get littered. Less than 2% get recycled. It takes a million trees a year to make those cups."
By contrast, ‘The Shrewsbury Cup’ is good for 1000 uses due to its EcoCore, meaning it’s filled with ‘foamed polypropylene’: “It’s fully recyclable because it’s just made of one material,” says Ali. “And it starts saving carbon after just 3 uses.”
The Shrewsbury Cup membership scheme is good for businesses too, saving them 50% of their outlay on cups.
Ali is just one half of tremendously successful local collaboration. Her colleague is Sophie Peach, a friend of 25 years, who has spent the last 10 years working as a speech trainer with young people in schools across the country, helping them to develop the skills to give speeches on topics they feel passionate about in front of an audience. One of the recurring themes has been Care for our Environment. Sophie made a resolve to be part of something positive that will make a difference here in our community. She was inspired by what was achieved in Freiburg, Germany, which launched a reusable cup in October 2016.
Sophie Peach (L) and Ali Thomas (R) founders of The Shrewsbury Cup scheme
“Why don’t we do that here in Shrewsbury?” said Sophie and, with some help from Shrewsbury BID, off they went, “The Two Mad Cup Ladies”, as Ali puts it. “And it’s all Sophie’s fault!”
Together, they make a formidable team.
“Sophie knows how to run a business; she does all the negotiating, all the invoicing. I know a bit about the science and about behaviour and I’ve worked in Waste for about 35 years.”
“I used to inspect factories with my hard hat on and my steel-capped boots and go up distillation columns and chat to people from ICI,” Ali tells me. “Then I went to Honduras with my husband Andrew in my twenties and we lived there for four years. I did an industrial audit on the pollution from a brewery in the second city of San Pedro Sula. There was a huge amount of effluent going into the river. With a few tweaks and reverse valves, I saved them thousands of dollars a year. They thought I was some kind of wizard. I said, “I’m just recycling water, you know.”
She returned to the UK, had three boys and worked in consultancy and in schools addressing environmental issues, before setting up ‘Zero Waste Events’ in 2011.
“We started at Ludlow Medieval Christmas Fair in the middle of winter, at an outdoor event, dressed as monks!” she says. Ali had to learn quickly, but over the years, her business has gathered clients for at least 25 different events in Shropshire and Wales every year.
As if this weren’t enough, she also set up the Shrewsbury Food Hub with Katy Anderson in 2016. Seven years later, its 120 volunteers collect surplus food daily from over 37 suppliers including local supermarkets, manufacturers and farms and share it with over 58 community groups, supporting the homeless, the old, the vulnerable and those on low incomes. As with the Shrewsbury Cup scheme, Ali is a firm believer in ‘Doing the Local Stuff’.
“Working with your Local Community really helps. And it’s great for your endorphins!”
Her mission to reduce waste remains as ambitious as ever.
“Our vision is a town without any single use cups,” says Ali “and our objective is to get as many people as possible thinking about reuse instead of single use."
To make this even easier, a ‘Shrewsbury Cup’ app for your phone is under development and set to be released next month, meaning there’s no need for cash and you don’t even have to take your cup back to the barista!
“The Shrewsbury Cup is our town’s very own scheme,” says Ali proudly “and it’s so simple. Just look for the sticker and choose to reuse!”