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Fatbergs, Justice and Accessibility: A Conversation with Ellenor McIntosh

Updated: 4 days ago

Individuals try. We all try our best. It’s about a million people doing things imperfectly rather than a hundred doing it perfectly’



We recently sat down with Ellenor (Elle) to talk about her journey developing Twipes – the world’s first truly flushable and biodegradable wet wipes. We talked about allowing individuals to make viable product switches to being part of the broader climate movement that seeks to challenge and change our systems and cultures of life for the better.  

 

Jen: To kick things off I thought I’d introduce who we are and what we do at Voice4ChangeEngland. We are a national membership-led organisation and intermediary grant body. We offer various kinds of financial, infrastructure, policy and networking support to see that the Black and Minoritised Ethnic (BME) voluntary and community sector is united, strengthened and able to exercise their voice at higher levels of policy decision making and get access to the funding that they need.


We’re continuing this work to ensure that racial equity stays high on the agenda by extending our efforts towards the climate crisis, where the issue of equity, diversity and inclusion remains, and climate justice is yet to be fully realised. Part of this means being able to reach out to environmentalists and creators like yourself to really shed light on why the environment is for everyone and how we can all be a part of forging a movement that is truly inclusive.  

 

Could you introduce yourself and Twipes – how you got started, your success so far and how the product tackles plastic pollution?

Elle: Of course! I am the Chief Technology Officer and inventor of Twipes. We make the world’s first truly flushable, truly biodegradable wet wipes. Our wipes break down in water within three hours and break down in landfill within seven days. To give you some context, seven days is the amount of time it takes for a banana peel to break down, and three hours is the fastest on the market currently.


In terms of our journey, we started in the UK. I started this business a while ago now. It took about four to five years of research & development: making sure that the product is safe for use on everyone. Now we’ve got a product that we’re able to launch in the UK and the States. It’s just been an amazing journey for us. We’ve been grateful to have all the support that we’ve had. At the moment, it’s really hitting the ground running and we’re excited to see where it goes even further.  

 

Jen: That’s amazing. One of the things that caught my eye was how clear the brand and messaging is. I hadn’t really thought too much about whether if a company says something’s biodegradable, is it? Along the way I stumbled on the topic of fatbergs.


Could you explain what fatbergs are and how Twipes helps alleviate that? 

Elle: If you’ve never heard of what a fatberg is, I’m sure you’ve heard of an iceberg. An iceberg is when there’s a pile of ice under the water, Titanic, all the rest of it. But in terms of fatbergs, what happens is you flush a wipe down the toilet, and you add fats, oils and greases - FOG - in the pipes. The wipes get stuck on the pipes and after all the FOGs come in, it creates a lump in the pipes. It’s not just a blockage, it’s a whole devastation. In 2017, the fatberg that was found under Whitechapel in East London weighed something like a tonne. After that, our job as a company got a lot easier when it came to telling people in the UK not to flush their wet wipes. 

 

Jen: It just goes to show how much plastic there is in everything that we use. It’s a positive sign to see what Twipes is doing, but also how the market is coming up with a lot of alternatives.

What are some of the best ways to normalise and mainstream adopting better habits and swaps for environmentally friendly alternatives?  

Elle: In terms of making easier swaps, as a company, we pride ourselves on people changing their product and not their behaviour. Our product is extremely accessible to people. I think this is where the biggest challenge comes from when people want to be eco-friendly. If we take, for example, a vegan diet. People want to be vegan for environmental reasons. But being vegan is significantly more expensive. What happens is you have a group of people who can afford to be vegan. I think accessibility of these products - making sure that they’re available for everyone at the right price point - is super important.  

 

Jen: That feeds in to how we talk about climate justice and fairness. When we discuss climate change nowadays, we’re not just talking about reducing our emissions and reducing our carbon footprint. We’re talking about who has fair access to green space; who is disproportionately exposed to air pollution and polluted waterways. What are your thoughts on this?

What does fairness and justice in the climate movement mean to you? 

Elle: I think it comes from all different levels. We’ve got the governing bodies in our respective countries, towns, areas, that need to increase their transparency levels. We don’t know fully what’s happening with our environment because nobody’s telling us. And the people who are telling us may not necessarily be giving us the full picture; we know that the climate is changing but we don’t know at what rate and what we can do to change it. As a governing body or business, there are Environmental, Social and Governance goals that a lot of businesses have, but I think there needs to be more stringency on that. Businesses need to be stricter in what they’re doing, and there needs to be an increase in welfare of people. Businesses take responsibility for the welfare of their customers, but I think it goes beyond that. As a governing body, there needs to be more in place where we can offer access to people, allowing them to be more ecofriendly, put the climate first and put the people who are living in these areas first.  

 

Jen: Absolutely. The climate space can be very intimidating to get involved with at the beginning. I remember being a student, thinking that getting involved in the climate space wasn’t really for me because I didn’t have a climate science background. There’s so much information and noise that it can be hard, even as a consumer, to make the right decisions. 


Elle: It shouldn’t be so difficult to access those green spaces or access eco-friendly alternatives. I think equality of access is the biggest thing we can do in terms of climate and social justice, making sure that there is accessibility to everyone regardless of race, gender, financials etc.

 

What are your thoughts on bringing activism and business together to tackle both our social and environmental problems? I think a lot of us, particularly if you’re starting out in your career, want to feel that where you work represents your values, what you stand for and care about. What has your journey been since graduating and starting Twipes?

Elle: In terms of where I started, I’ve always loved the environment. Even as a kid, I was the one sorting the recycling in my household and talking about how the planet was changing. I was a very strange child... Kids were playing with dolls whilst I was asking, 'what’s going to happen in Y2K?' 'Is the whole planet shutting down?' So I’ve always been naturally drawn to this. When we started the business, I was already aware of the challenges that we were facing as a group of people. I'd tell people: 'You can’t use wet wipes. Wet wipes don’t flush. It may say flushable on the packet, but it doesn’t flush.' The whole idea was generated from the fact that we sat down and talked about this. I pay attention, and it came from an interest in the environment. I know not everybody has that, but I think businesses and any job you go into, they should be absolutely transparent on what they do to make their pledge towards the environment in some way. It can be small, but it needs to be significant.  

 

How would you encourage more people to get involved in the climate movement, not just in their day-to-day consumption and behaviour habits, but going beyond that?

 

Elle: I’m going to say something a little bit different here. I think that as individuals, we do as much as we possibly can to decrease our carbon footprint, or do something that will help the environment. We see so many adverts saying, 'you have to do this and just make one change'. I think it’s important that as individuals we continue to do this. But there are huge corporations that are responsible for the climate crisis. There are a hundred energy companies that contribute to 71% of the global emissions in the world. And if a hundred of those companies just made a small shift, we would be able to reduce those emissions. I think it’s unfair to blame or put more onus on individuals because we are doing the best we can.  


We’ve been told, don’t drive. In London alone you’ve got the ultra-low emission zones and the congestion charge where people are paying out of their pocket. Sometimes, they have to drive to work and have got no other choice. But then these huge corporations are not doing enough. They’re probably still doing some things, but they’re not doing enough to try and change the environment we live in. It’s not good enough anymore to just say 'we're green because we plant a load of trees' – 'we plant a load of un-indigenous trees on the Scottish Highlands, chop them down after five years and do the same thing and say we’re carbon neutral'. It’s just not good enough. And the cheek to put all that onus on individuals is shocking to me.


Jen: It is outrageous. Look at climate solutions at high levels of policy and politics where the money is being poured in, for example carbon capture storage technologies, even though the evidence behind it is not fully there. Yet we’re seeing a massive shift in resources towards that when it could have gone towards tackling fuel poverty and the millions living in cold, damp and mouldy homes. Whilst it’s important to emphasise how individuals can play their part and bring their own strengths, it’s important to note that we’re limited if we don’t change the system and structure we’re working within.  


Elle: Individuals try. We all try out best. It’s about a million people doing things imperfectly rather than a hundred doing it perfectly.  

 

Do you have any advice as an environmentalist and young entrepreneur, for anyone looking to get into the climate tech space, pursue a green job, or who is simply looking for a way to get involved in their local communities?

Elle: The same advice I give to people who want start businesses: Talk. You have to talk to people. If you’re interested in a climate job or in making a difference within your community, tell people that. You do yourself no favours holding all that information in and going, I really want to start something, but I don’t know where to start. The first step is talking to somebody - that’s exactly how our business started. We had a conversation about it. Once that conversation started, the ball just got rolling. Speak to people in your community, speak to your family and friends, because chances are somebody knows somebody. People want to help you.

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