Planning a zero-waste neighbourhood at the Phoenix

How do you create a neighbourhood that minimises waste? It’s a question we hope to answer with the Phoenix Project, our sustainable, mixed-used development in Lewes. Here, we intend to create a place that radically challenges how we consume and discard items, providing excellent composting, recycling and waste management facilities on site, as well as upcycling and repair workshops – fostering a culture where space, resources and utilities are shared. 

The amount of waste created in the UK – an average of 400kg per person – suggests that current systems are failing. British households create over 26m ​​tonnes of waste each year, but only 12m tonnes of that is recycled. This puts our recycling rate at about 45 per cent – well below the likes of Germany, Austria and South Korea, where rates are between 60 and 70 per cent. Our reliance on, and disposal of, plastic is particularly alarming: England uses an estimated 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.25 billion items of single-use cutlery per year – most of which are plastic. 

The global waste crisis and climate breakdown are two distinct issues facing the planet, but they can not be entirely disentangled: energy is required to create products, and it is required to dispose of them, which means the burning of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases. Changes need to be made at neighbourhood level that encourage a shift in social norms. 

Office manager Lobke, with her young helpers

From office to neighbourhood

We don’t need to wait for construction to begin on the Phoenix to explore the possibilities and challenges of moving towards zero-waste living. We’ve started where we work, with our office Phoenix House, at the southern tip of the site. This is not just about practising what we preach but planning and learning in real time. After refrotting the building, we’ve begun to look at ways of reducing waste and sourcing sustainably, including our food and drink supply. All dried food is delivered in reusable containers, which are then collected, with fresh food and drink brought from the Lewes markets and local suppliers. “We are trying to move towards a ‘home environment’ by providing food for staff where we can, meaning they’re less likely to buy sandwiches from supermarkets with plastic packaging,” says Lobke Braspennincx, office manager, who is overseeing the reorganisation.  

Food waste, grounds from coffee and tea leaves are composted on site by the Compost Club, which diverts local food waste from landfill or incineration, and delivers compost to its members. As founder Michael Kennard notes, food waste is a major driver of climate breakdown. The UK throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food in a single year, with households responsible for 70% of this – even though 8.4 million people in the UK live in food poverty. In fact, a third of all the world’s food goes to waste, responsible for around 8-10% of global greenhouse gases when you add together emissions from production, transportation and those released as it rots on landfill sites.

Slavo Antus and Richard Hooper with the greenhouse and planter

“Composting emissions – when done right – are drastically lower than landfill,” says Michael. “The most recent figures from Defra show this with CO2 emissions per tonne of food waste in landfill at 626kg compared to just 8.9kg when composted. If you make good compost with beneficial microorganisms and a good fungal content then it has serious power to sequester carbon. The key to keeping that carbon locked up is to not dig your soil, but to feed it good quality compost as a mulch and your soil will get better year on year.” 

Michael’s work is just the beginning of what will be a central component of the Phoenix. Food waste from the neighbourhood will be composted on site, and then used in soil regeneration projects and to grow food at an urban farm. With construction on the Phoenix yet to begin, we’re not ready to find a permanent home for growing, but we’ve been able to use salvaged timber and steel sheets from the site to build mobile planters, as well as a tree nursery and greenhouse (made from salvaged site timber, boards repurposed from the Design Festival, and discarded glass doors and windows). Using Michael’s compost, the planters will help us produce fruit and vegetables for the office. This modest yield will begin the first steps towards a productive urban garden that will provide organic, zero-emission food in the neighbourhood, supplementing what’s delivered by local farms. 

Michael runs the Compost Club from the Phoenix site

Making it easy

Moving the office towards zero-waste has reconfirmed to Lobke that cutting out single-use plastics, sourcing products in compostable packing and chemical-free cleaning products is often expensive and time consuming. “People have good intentions,” she says “but it’s difficult to make it happen. This is a work in progress, but you need bigger structures in place. It needs to be cheap and easy, so people are super happy about their impact.” 

At the Phoenix, we intend to create facilities and services that contribute towards a culture that encourages and enables people to waste less. A major part of that will be providing rentable spaces for residents to set up their own businesses and ventures focused on upcycling, repair and share. What can’t be fixed or upcycled  will be sorted on site for recycling, with only the remaining rubbish collected by the council. 

To learn more about our plans for the Phoenix Project, click here