(18) Interview with the founders of Little Plant Pantry for The Earth Issue. 

Photos: Jaimee Lowe

~ For what we're doing, there is no blueprint. Everything is a conversation.

While working on this interview, throughout the Europe heatwave, the point came where one evening, we considered ordering food. The convenience of getting some Himalayan momo’s or an Indian dosa delivered to our door, could mean I had some more time to transcribe the conversation, instead of spending time cooking. I could not, however suppress the feeling of incongruity related to writing this piece while ordering exotic food in disposable containers. I looked in the fridge, made a cauliflower curry, and then continued the work.

Maria Romanova Hynes and Winter Romanov from Little Plant Pantry, moved from rural Ireland to Amsterdam early last year, to open the city’s first zero-waste shop. We sat in their garden, newly built within ten days with the help of volunteers, and talked about their journey towards a sustainable urban existence, the harsh reality of the food industry and the challenges and joys of running your own shop.

Georgia Kareola: Most people in search for a more sustainable life, seem to move away from the city. What you’ve done is the opposite. I’m really curious how this has been for you. First of all, how did you come to live off the grid?

Winter Romanov: “Before moving out to the countryside, I’d been working in business in Dublin. It was the usual, very stressful environment and eventually I decided to get out. I pursued what was my dream since I was very young; to live in a cottage off the Westcoast of Ireland. My life changed completely. I wasn't living what you would call a 'sustainable' life, but I was living quite a good life in terms of carbon footprint. I used to go fishing down on the rocks and ate a very simple diet of fish and locally bought potatoes. Different things happened that changed my attitude. I went fishing one day and caught a fish with the hook through its eye. I realised the suffering that fish had gone through, and never went fishing again.

I had been living there for four or five years when Maria came along.

Maria Romanova Hynes: At that point in time, we're talking seven years ago, I was still at university. I was doing a degree in Literature and I came over to the West of Ireland for my summer break. I was reading all this Irish literature, and it talked about the west of Ireland; how beautiful it was and how the language had been preserved. There was no language left when I came, but it was still very beautiful.

We were both questioning a lot of things at the time. When I met Winter, I remember him saying that he didn't eat pork because he disagreed with the way the industry is treating those animals. I was very attuned to this. I grew up in Russia and every summer, the kids would be sent out of Moscow, because you couldn't breathe there. I would go to my grandmother’s friend’s house in a very traditional village. They had a farm where I would work and take care of birds and chickens and turkeys, and through that I developed an understanding of the way animals were treated. I actually wanted to become vegetarian at that time but I was only 13 and my parents didn’t allow it. Later, I became quite a conventional teenager, never questioning anything. I went from not wanting to eat meat to thinking that being vegetarian was just a fashion, and that people had no idea how animals were actually being treated. I knew the village life, not the farming industry.

I didn't know at the time that, actually, the world is structured differently and the meat industry is not an idyllic farm in the middle of nowhere that kills one chicken every three months.

M: After I finished my Master’s degree in Dublin, we decided to search for the ideal life. I didn't want to stay in the city and we didn't want to work for anyone, so we went back to the west of Ireland. We lived in a farming community - basically the entire west of Ireland is a farming community. We saw there, how much the animals around us were suffering. Even if they roamed freely, they often had broken legs and no one really cared about them during harsh storms on the Atlantic coast.

W: A lot of the animal abuse in Ireland is not industrial abuse, but abuse through neglect. Once you see an animal as produce, it's impossible to actually care. You have to mentally detach. It's a subtle form of cruelty.

W: Our growing consideration of waste happened pretty much by accident. In Ireland, we had a shed where we would collect and divide all our waste. I was very good at waste management, but after six to eight weeks, we would have a carload full of tins, tetra-packs and different types of plastics. When it transpired that the majority of what we collected could not be recycled but would go to landfill, I started to realise - fuck - we're doomed. If this was what two people trying to live sustainably produce in trash, we really are in trouble.

We decided to change our habits but realised soon this was difficult. There was no bulk shop where we lived, so we were forced to ask: how do you actually live without producing so much waste if the world isn't built for this? This led us to open a place ourselves where we would be able to shop.

G: Was it easier to become more aware because you weren't plugged into city life?

W: 100 percent.

M: We were living in the most beautiful cottage surrounded by no one and were totally inward looking for some time.

W: I don't think we would have done this if we would not have had this time to look at ourselves. I think that helped us enormously.

G: You then decided to move back into the city. Why did you feel this urge?

M: My main disappointment was that we couldn't really connect with anyone. Even though we liked the isolation at first, we wanted to find a like-minded community. The great thing about having this shop, is that we meet some wonderful people. They just walk through the door. Winter says his faith in humanity has been restored through this, which is interesting because he had no faith.

W: I always believed, and I probably still believe, that we are doomed. Coming here made me change perspective: we might be doomed but I’m not cynical any longer because that community we were hoping to find is here, and it is growing. It means there are an awful lot of people that want to do good in the world, that don't want to live an uncaring existence. We find them through having this shop, which is wonderful. Every day people thank us for opening up. It means we're giving more than just products.

M: Now we've become an active part of the food-chain. On the downside, this also made us realise that we have very little power over the whole monster that is behind us. The food-chain is governed by considerations of efficiency, not ethics and sustainability.

W: If it would be, people would have to accept that they're not going to be eating things that come from around the world. There's so much we have to give up if we were to be truly sustainable and most people just aren't prepared to make that choice.

M: We constantly need to find a balance between being sustainable and providing enough choice so we can exist as a shop.

W: We are forced to make choices every day. Often this comes down to choosing the better of two evils, just because it's a business.

G: It's this interesting dynamic between reliance on the system, and creating something controversial that goes against the grain. I don't think you can step out, and that it is an illusion to be completely disconnected.  

M: When we met, this was one of our main differences. Winter was living off the grid, proud of being outside of it all. Every time we saw each other, I was trying to prove to him that this wasn't possible; that no matter how far you go, you're still part of the global world.

W: And you won that argument.

M: I won it on many fronts, because we did go to the countryside and couldn't escape the system there, and now we moved to the city and can't escape it here.

G: You can't escape the system, you can only try to do something different with it. Perhaps it’s more important to make your contribution and find as many people as possible that are on the same track.

W: Having a shop with the doors open is a fascinating way of growing a community. Sometimes we get tired of talking because we talk all the time now, but ultimately that is what will help us. All the best connections we made so far were because we were talking to people.

M: For what we're doing, there is no blueprint, there are no answers. Everything is a conversation, and that's why you need other people. You can't have a conversation with yourself all day long.

When we were thinking about opening a shop, I actually wanted to call it a research lab. I thought, it's gonna be the most enjoyable thing in the world, I'm just gonna be doing all this research. The reality is, that we have very little time left for something we thought was going to be the essential, most important, most exciting part of what we're doing. We spend most of our time sweeping the floor, ordering food, paying invoices.  

G: It strikes me that you're not being very evangelical about the cause. The fact that you wanted to call it a research lab shows me that you're rather being educational about it - is that also how you see it?

M: Yes. I don't want to put people in a situation, where they feel they need to do something 100% or not at all. I think that with a lot of these extreme, evangelical attitudes you end up being somewhat tyrannical in your views.

We were not always vegans, and we weren't born into a plastic free world. We are trying to change, and to help other people  change. That’s all we can do.

We don't want to claim that we know the truth. I know one thing for sure, which is that I don't know the truth. I don't know whether the ripple effect of my effort will be good or bad - I cannot see the future. I don't see the whole world in its entirety. I cannot be judgemental.

I think there is such a thing as activism, which is pure dedication to a cause, and I think that's very important. We are doing something slightly different: we are working with the public. There are of course causes that I stand by, but when I'm in the shop, I am a shop owner. It's just a different job. I welcome people into this world that we've created and try to help them. Winter taught me that 50% of doing business is working with people. It's so important. We have to bridge the gap between us, not create a divide.

What it comes down to, is that we're not here to dictate. We're here to learn together and to provide a service.