“I’m constantly bowled over by the way Mancs get behind things. It’s lovely.”
Manchester: Delusional enough to believe that we’ll always do it better
Corin Bell, 37. Environmental campaign, food entrepreneur, hospitality sector lead for Greater Manchester’s single-use plastics campaign.
I was born and bred in Stockport and moved to Manchester to go to Uni. Not a lot of my college or school were going to Uni. A lot of them were staying local. If you’re in a school or college where everyone is going away, it feels quite natural and everyone picks the farthest place they could go. But I was a but nervous about it so I went five miles down the road and it felt like a big adventure.
What really struck me when I got to Manchester was that it still felt like home, it was a lot bigger, than Stockport, a lot busier, a hell of a lot more people than Stockport, a lot of students, but it was still really friendly and it was still really northern and it still felt like home. That’s why I managed to stick it out.
I ended up taking a job with Manchester city council and working in homelessness, then in housing, and then in environmental strategy.
I left Manchester city council in 2011. We had a change in government, which I won’t comment about, and decided to go freelance working on projects with community groups, charities, trying to support projects which had environmental aims.
More and more I found myself working on projects around food, food waste, food poverty, what’s our sustainable future going to be, it wasn’t really a conscious choice, I just found myself drawn to projects around food.
The decision to concentrate on food wasn’t a conscious one. I look back on it now and I recognise that for me it’s quite a personal thing – it’s so central to not just keeping us alive, it’s how we celebrate, it’s how we get a sense of community, it’s how we gather.
We have a food system that our planet just cannot sustain. Every time we waste food, we waste land, we waste water, we waste packaging, we waste diesel. We produce enough food on this planet to feed everyone and then we throw a third of it away, normally for really silly reasons – cosmetic reasons, logistical reasons, financial reasons. We’re wasting currently around 15m tonnes of food every year in the UK alone, and at the same time, there are about 8m people in poverty so deep that they aren’t able to buy enough food. You put those two facts together and it takes over my life.
I met the person who started the first Real Junk Food Project in Leeds in 2014. I asked if I could basically nick the model and bring it to Manchester.
Developing Real Junk Food Manchester has been an organic process – it’s been bonkers. We wanted in Manchester to do something that really bucked against the trend of linking food waste and food poverty. There’s a lot of projects out there who really target people in food poverty and they’re brilliant. They’re stopping people from dying. But if you target people in food poverty you’re also isolating them, you separate them from everyone else and that causes huge social, psychological, cultural issues.
What we wanted to do was to was do something with food that would otherwise go to waste, that was for everyone. We wanted to make something that was really positive and really mainstream, somewhere that had a really great food offer, and just say everybody’s welcome. The message should be: it doesn’t matter who you are, this food is perfectly edible and perfectly lovely and it should never have gone to waste.
I’m constantly bowled over by the way Mancs get behind things. It’s lovely, I feel like the project belongs to the city. We’ve run two crowd funders now, one to get our first restaurant set up, one to set up our more recent catering social enterprise and both times we’ve been absolutely blown away by how generous people have bene, by how supportive they’ve been, by how supportive other businesses who work in the food and drink sector have shared and supported. No one’s ever seen us as competition. There’s a really lovely sense of camaraderie.
“In anything I do, I don’t say I have a job, I have a mission.
We went from running Manchester’s first waste food, pay-as-you-feel restaurant to opening the city’s first waste food catering social enterprise. We wanted to find a way to bring food that would otherwise go to waste to a much wider audience and catering allows us to do that.
I have a terrible habit of sticking my nose into everyone else’s business. Before the last mayor’s Green summit in March last year, Andy Burnham called a roundtable with some people in the hospitality and tourism sector and he wanted to pull together a commitment to take some action towards a more sustainable food, drink and hospitality sector. And one of the issues which has been really prominent is single-use plastics. I went along. Sometimes I can be quite opinionated – shocking – and if these things are going to happen, I want them to be done right, I want them to have substance not style, and actually deliver something that’s going to be useful. I kept sticking my oar in. And at some point I was asked to come in and meet with Andy and was expecting a restraining order – a request to please stop emailing me. He asked if I was willing to lead on the plastics campaign.
To be asked to champion a big cause like that is a big responsibility – it’s a bit intimidating. But I have been a campaigner and a worker in the field of sustainability for a long time.
Blue Planet and the Attenborough affect has had a huge impact. Witnessing the impact on wildlife really gets people paying attention. There’s seven and a half billion of us on this planet. Whether it’s plastic, paper, whatever it’s made of, it’s single-use that we need to get away from.
You can’t have this many people in a city and have a million of them, every day, get a coffee in a paper cup and throw it in the bin. We can’t be taking resources out of the ground, using them once, and then incinerating or recycling them. There’s a huge amount of energy and a huge carbon footprint embedded in that. We need to change the way we live our lives and just little things like everyone carrying a reusable coffee cup, and us not using millions of single-use water bottles every day, it absolutely can make a difference.
I’m really optimistic that Greater Manchester can be a leader in this. There’s something about the size of Manchester. We’re small enough, that in some ways it still feels like a town, there’s a lot of cohesion, you can get a message across. But we’re big enough that when we do something and we work the kinks out of it and we get it right, it’s replicable, it spreads. I think there is something about the way that Manchester has started to separate itself from dreaded London and really make its own identity that really makes it possible for us to make our own decisions and go in our own direction.
There’s not really an end date to what we’re doing. We’ve set some strong targets about removing plastic straws and removing single-use plastics from tourism and hospitality, and then we’re working universities and schools.
If I could change one thing about Manchester I would probably just keep adding green. Sometimes because Manchester’s an industrial city, we’re not like London, we’ve never had city centre parks, Manchester has a good amount of green space but we’d like to see more.
My favourite thing about Manchester? I think it’s always the people. There’s something about the attitude in Manchester. I kind of love the arrogance, you know that: ‘We did it first,’ whether or not we did. ‘We did it first. You tried it and then we did it best.’ There’s something lovely in that. There’s a nice bit of grass roots confidence and I think that’s one of the things that helps us to push forward. We’re just delusional enough to believe that we’ll always do it better. And maybe you need a bit of that.