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Don’t just recycle your waste, upcycle it! An interview with Joe Hill, of One Planet Pizza.

Joe Hill, the co-founder of One Planet Pizza, talked to business writer Huw Sayer about his firm’s commitment to sustainability and our free-to-join Upcycle Your Waste project for SMEs. Upcycle Your Waste is a green project designed to create a sustainable circular economy in Norwich, and funded by the EU under the Interreg 2 Seas Programme.  

When Joe Hill and his father Mike set up One Planet Pizza in 2016, they had a clear idea of the sort of company they wanted to run. Not only would it be the first UK company to make delicious, healthy, all vegan frozen pizzas but it would also have a strong commitment to ethical business practices and sustainability. This included sourcing their plant-based ingredients from like-minded companies and ensuring their products and packaging were as environmentally friendly as possible.

The company was one of the first all vegan food manufacturers in Europe to attract investment through crowd-funding and in the process it built a strong brand with its customers. Roll forward to 2020 and this community owned company is now making around 500 frozen pizzas a day. Demand has grown this year in part because people wanted their favourite pizzas delivered direct to their homes during lockdown.

Joe has already made a great start on reducing One Planet Pizza’s waste by upcycling used cardboard boxes into environmentally friendly packaging. Upcycling goes beyond recycling to create something of equal or greater value to the original product: in this case, a cost effective alternative to traditional packaging material. We asked Joe to tell us more about his idea – and why it is so important to his business.

We only have one planet, we need to protect it

“Sustainability has been a key part of our brand since the start,” says Joe. “We sell frozen vegan pizzas because that’s the most efficient way to get them to shops and customers in prime condition but virtually all our ingredients arrive frozen too. That immediately means your food waste is practically zero because you only use the ingredients when you need them – that’s good for the business and the planet."

“Standard cardboard boxes make up at least 75% of the packaging that enters and leaves our site. That's from the ingredient packs to our pizza boxes: it's all recyclable. The other 25% is currently non-recyclable plastic bags that the food comes in but we are working on that with our suppliers."

“However, we knew that simply sending our cardboard waste off for recycling wasn’t good enough. For a start, a huge amount of such waste never actually gets recycled because the system in the UK is not as good as it could be. It would also involve paying someone else to collect it, which is a cost to the business, and to transport it by lorry to somewhere else, which is a cost to the planet in terms of additional air pollution."

“We were determined to do things differently and decided to invest in a large commercial paper shredder, which now sits in the back of our unit. Every day a member of our team feeds it from our small stockpile of used but clean cardboard boxes (we flatten these as we empty them of ingredients). We then use the finely shredded upcycled card to pack up our pizzas safely for delivery to our customers across the UK."

“As well as being an environmentally friendly option that’s cheaper than many alternatives, shredded cardboard is also an excellent insulating material and so ideal for packing frozen goods. We use DPD to send our pizzas direct to consumers twice a week – and every box contains the equivalent of two or three shredded boxes as packaging material. Our consumers appreciate this reuse of resources – and many then reuse it for their own packaging or compost it for their gardens."

“We try to ensure that all our packaging is as biodegradable as possible and our individual pizza boxes, which we get from a UK supplier, have always been fully compostable. The boxes have a message on them encouraging people to think about how they dispose of them and we ask for creative upcycling ideas through our social media channels. We’re particularly fortunate to have customers who are already thinking along the same lines and are often ahead of us in their commitment to environmental protection.”

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Sustainability delivers business, social and environmental benefits

While Joe is personally committed to living sustainably, he is also keen for other SMEs to appreciate the business benefits of being environmentally friendly. He identified two ways, in particular, that companies could gain a competitive advantage by embracing ethical waste policies. These benefits were around financial management and brand differentiation.

“As soon as you start focusing on waste reduction, you are likely to identify cost savings in your business processes. Just by being more efficient you can save money on the way you source materials and the amount you pay for disposing of waste. It doesn’t take a big project to start, what really matters is the mindset of the leadership team: they need to be committed to developing a more sustainable business."

“The other benefit is in building your brand’s eco credentials with employees, customers and potential business partners, suppliers and buyers. As a small family run business, we are never going to compete with large corporates on price because their economies of scale allow them to operate on thinner margins. Our differentiator has to be in the quality of our pizzas – they must taste delicious every time – and in our shared values: ethical plant-based foods and environmentally friendly production methods."

“We think we can really raise the bar about what makes us special through incremental improvement and in breakthrough ideas like our shredder. Our customers are willing to pay a little bit more for our pizzas because they want to help us tackle climate change: they appreciate our willingness to put purpose before profits. However, the big barriers to innovation for small businesses are always time and money, which is why we are so interested in the Norwich BID’s Upcycle Your Waste project: anything that helps SMEs become more sustainable must be a good thing.”

Developing Norfolk’s circular economy

If Joe’s story has inspired you and you run an SME in the Greater Norwich area, you can take the next step to making your business more sustainable. All you have to do is ask Norwich BID for a free waste audit. We want to see what value might be lurking in your waste and whether upcycling could unlock it.

Upcycling goes beyond recycling; it aims to turn waste into something of equal or greater worth than the waste itself. That might sound challenging but if you run an SME in Norwich you don’t need to worry about that because the Upcycle Your Waste team will take on the challenge for you. They will look at your waste, develop ideas and find partners who can upcycle it; you just stand to benefit if they are successful.

“That offer is a no brainer,” says Joe. “It breaks down those two barriers to innovation and is completely risk free. You’d be crazy to turn it down.

“This is one of the many things I love about Norwich,” he concludes. “It’s a great place to start and grow a business. Our community is incredibly supportive, with many strong networks, and there’s a strong ethical culture. People really want to make a difference, to improve life in their city and to protect our planet.”

Can we stick our head in your bin?

Upcycle Your Waste, run by Norwich BID, aims to give businesses in Greater Norwich the opportunity to save money on waste disposal and improve their environmental credentials. The team running the project are looking for SMEs who want to see their rubbish turned into something of value, rather than sending it to landfill. All you need to do to take part is apply for a free waste audit today.