The Onion Collective in Watchet is at the cutting edge of industry

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 April 2020

Onion Collective is a community interest company (c) John Kemp

Onion Collective is a community interest company (c) John Kemp

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Lucy Anna Scott discovers an all-female organisation helping to keep local industry alive in Somerset.

Onion Collective has secured funding and planning to build East Quay (c) Contains ArtOnion Collective has secured funding and planning to build East Quay (c) Contains Art

Watchet never stands still. This fact is obvious walking around the harbour, where you are reminded by an information board of the town’s relationship with innovation. Over 1,000 years it has thrived on cotton trading, seafaring, exported seaweed and been a UK paper manufacturing titan.

Now, from a cabin on the seafront, an all-female organisation has been created, born and bred here, working out where its story goes next. It is the headquarters of the community interest company, the Onion Collective, which has been working since 2013 to pioneer a sustainable industry for the future.

The eight-strong collective has a clear aim, as director Sally Lowndes explains: “We want to create a 21st century industry that cares about people. This is about jobs and a healthy environment, developed with and for the people.”

Watchet’s 250-year-old Wansbrough paper mill closed in 2015, taking almost 200 jobs with it.

“We lost our identity and soul,” says Sally. “But we want a new kind of economy for Watchet.”

It was a complex problem that only the town could solve. So the Onion Collective got cracking.“We had to figure out our strengths, explore which industries were doing well worldwide, and work out if they fit with Watchet,” says Onion director, Georgie Grant.

Five years on, there’s a solution. Within weeks the mill will reopen as a cutting-edge facility for bio-based materials manufacturing. It will grow a high-performing, entirely natural housing insulation; with the aim of creating 175 jobs; making between £3million and £5million annually, and retaining a local profit share.

Onion undertakes extensive research in the town to establish Watchet’s priorities and monitor social impact across all of its projects. Regular public meetings draw healthy audiences, and questionnaires have yielded hundreds of replies. While plans for the mill were steered by an engaged - and independent, community panel.

“There’s a real feeling that the community can make a difference,” says Georgie, referring to a survey in which almost 80 per cent of respondents agreed that Watchet has a strong sense of community.”

Early day possibilities ranged from tech-enabled elderly care to supplying components for the nearby Hinkley Point C. Then came the eureka moment.

“Bio-based technology captures the zeitgeist,” explains Sally. “At the time, a supermarket had banned plastic packaging and the BBC’s Blue Planet was airing. We realised we had growers in Watchet that could provide raw materials and we could provide a market for them.”

Hemp, insect farming, and chitin - a biodegradable material made from the skeletons of shrimps - were explored. Then the team stumbled across Biohm - a ground-breaking enterprise founded by Ehab Sayed to create natural building materials. Ehab’s team has created two bio-based materials for the construction industry; a product called orb, which is made out of agriculture waste and mycelium insulation - made by feeding the root systems of mushrooms.

“I sat down to write the email,” recalls Sally. “Ehab had just been nominated for the UN Young Champion of the Earth award. We wanted to approach him about working together but we didn’t want him to think we were mad,” she laughs.

But the collective had weight, having secured funding and planning to build East Quay, a £7.3million cultural centre. The venue opens next spring and will employ 37 - a project that’s succeeded where others have failed.

Naturally, Ehab was enamoured. “There was an instant connection between us,” says Georgie. “Sayed is kind, and thoughtful. He loved that we wanted to make a place that gave people purpose. Biohm aims to create healthy buildings and places and we want social justice. It was clear that together we could do something extraordinary.”

Local organic materials, such as grass cuttings or cardboard, will be shred in the mill and placed in moulds to feed mycelium (the roots of fungi). The mycelium eats as it grows and eventually fills the mould, creating a solid block that looks like cheese.

“The end product is an insulation sheet; a completely natural, non-toxic material that makes buildings healthier,” says Sally.

This facility - Biohm’s first outside London - will need up to 17 staff in its first year, quickly scaling up to produce 3,000m2 of insulation by the end of 2020 - enough for 20 homes. “This is about sustainable growth,” says Sally, who has begun talking about their concept to schools in the hope of giving kids a sense of ownership over this potentially globally-significant industry.

Onion Collective and Biohm are paying rent for use of a small portion of the 42-acre site. Eventually, operations will shift to a dedicated campus on the land, owned by Tameer Homes. Tameer, which have submitted outline plans for a mixed-use scheme, to support Watchet’s vision.

But by the time it has settled into the new facility, the story could have taken another turn. Already the team has discovered the mycelium could be fed with plastic - a possibility discovered accidentally, when the mycelium was found to have eaten a piece of synthetic sponge plugged into the jam jar the fungi was growing in. In short: this means the insulation could be grown from more toxic byproducts.

Stuck to the wall of the Onion’s office is a quote by Roald Dahl: ‘If you are interested in something…go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms’.

Thanks to this very special kind of enthusiasm, Watchet’s new chapter has already begun.

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