It is the end of another academic year. The air is overwhelmed with mixed emotions of goodbyes and see you again’s. Students give way to the tourists while student halls turn into temporary summer resorts. Dust particles begin to settle on bedrooms’ and common area-furniture, the corridors echo no more boisterous noise. But while cities and accommodations begin to hollow, the rubbish bins gush of the (literal) tonnes of waste – a lot of which completely recyclable and reusable – produced by 2 million students across the United Kingdom.
Almost 10 years ago, a modest group of Edinburgh students decided to break the cycle of buying in the beginning of the year and throwing away at the end of the year and build a world without waste. And so, the Shrub was born. Over a toasty cup of herbal tea, Annie Schultz -the Swapshop coordinator- takes Brig on a journey describing how the co-operative became what it is today.
The Shrub has its roots back in 2008, when a collaboration with the University of Edinburgh paved the way for a massive annual end-of-term collection (of abandoned items left behind by leaving students) and the setting up of the Fresher’s Freeshop. In the past 10 years, this entirely volunteer-run project has prevented 75 tons of unwanted stuff from ending up in the landfill, with 2017 witnessing the rescue of an astonishing 15 tonnes.
The realisation of the large scale of this damaging issue prompted the volunteers to move into their own premises and establish their very own Swapshop. The Swapshop fiddles with an alternative type of economy; people can bring no longer wanted items to the shop, the value of which will then be translated into tokens which in turn can be used to purchase other items from the shop. Cash is also accepted. Members (£12-fee per year) and volunteers (3 tokens per hour of volunteering) receive free access to the members’ all-year-round Freeshop, or a 20% discount off non-member price tags.
The Shrub co-operative has now flourished into a boastful tree of different branches; the Swapshop, the Wee Spoke Hub and the Food Sharing branch. The Wee Spoke Hub cultivates citizens’ cycling and repairing skills in addition to collecting-repairing-distributing donated bicycles of all conditions and sizes. The Food Sharing initiative aims to facilitate the ‘interception of food’. Excess food is collected from individuals, households or businesses and is then redistributed to individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds be it friends, neighbours, charities, homeless people or shelters.
Miraculously enough, the tireless volunteers have also somehow managed to find the energy, time and incitement to organize various workshops that offer a ‘holistic approach to sustainable living’ so that people can attain the tools they need to be ‘active makers of change.’ The workshops vary from more hands-on (such as creating chandeliers from bicycle wheels and holding second-hand fashion shows) to ones that facilitate discussion and exchange of ideas on issues related to the environment and society such as climate change, activism and social justice. Through these workshops, notably, the Shrub intends to build a community that feels safe and welcoming and through which awareness can be spread on important issues.
Recently, the volunteers came up with idea of CinéShrub; film screenings of movies and documentaries that usually portray and debate on societal and environmental issues. It is worth mentioning that viewers can often munch on popcorn on the house, with the screenings running on the first Fridays of each month.
When asked about whether there are any qualifications required to volunteer or whether she could describe the perfect candidate, Schultz shrugged in amusement; “Anyone is welcome here. There is no hierarchy. The staff and volunteers are equally important.” The way the projects are organised, and the hubs are run, is completely malleable. Schultz compared it to “blank pages that people (volunteers and visitors) can write themselves.” She also expressed her eagerness to witness more people getting involved and volunteering in the co-operative especially since “this is a very special time for Shrub. It is growing.”
Ultimately, the Shrub is not your average charity shop that sells second-hand bric-a-brac. It is a community. All purchased items are weighed so that volunteers can keep track of the environmental impact. Shrub also experiments with an alternative economic model; the swapping system. Even though it is still on a small-scale, Schultz expressed her optimism that the system will expand through trial and error, the method followed when testing out any new ideas in the co-operative. For now, the co-operative is far from being self-sustainable and relies on grants to cover its costs. However, the amount of effort, education and goodwill that is put into the Shrub is hardly translatable into money.