Sustainable travel

Welcome to Dunbar, Scotland’s first Zero Waste town

Sheila Sim explores why a Scottish coastal town is channelling the spirit of a 19th century conservationist

Friday 02 April 2021 15:28
<p>Fishing boats in Dunbar harbour </p>

Fishing boats in Dunbar harbour

The small town of Dunbar, on the East Lothian coast, has it all: sweeping beaches and craggy cliffs, two working harbours, a ruined castle with its own kittiwake colony, a high street full of independent shops and more outdoor activities than you can shake an oar at. It was also the birthplace, in 1838, of pioneer conservationist and environmental activist John Muir. His birthplace and museum marks the end of the John Muir Way, the 134-mile walking route from Scotland’s west coast to east coast.

Whether by chance or design, Muir’s spirit seems to live on in Dunbar. This is Scotland’s first zero-waste town (working to reduce waste to landfill and maximise the benefits of re-use and recycling) and its second Transition town – the Transition Network movement aims to increase community self-sufficiency and reduce emissions. A community development trust, Sustaining Dunbar, was launched in 2008 to steward and support the Transition initiative; it has developed dozens of projects to help people reduce home energy consumption, walk and cycle more, and grow more of their own food.

The Backlands community garden

East Lothian is renowned for its fishing and agriculture; it has some of the best agricultural land in Scotland. The Local Good Food Alliance – one of the many projects developed by Sustaining Dunbar – is helping people re-connect with food in ways that create more jobs, benefit wildlife and restore natural systems.

The Alliance brings together growers and fishermen, restaurants and retailers, social enterprises and community kitchens. One of its members is Belhaven Lobster; you can buy freshly caught seafood straight from its boat, Tangaroa. As skipper Lawrie McFarlane says, “Scottish lobster is renowned across Europe. It’s crazy that so much gets exported, when we're lucky enough to have it on our doorstep. It would be great to see more local people embracing it and eating more of it here.”

Meanwhile, Belhaven Community Garden has been transforming the land beside the small local hospital into gardens where local residents, community groups, staff and patients can grow food and flowers together. The Backlands is another community garden, run by local social enterprise The Ridge. Both function as market gardens and outdoor cooking classrooms.

In the High Street, when the longstanding owners of much-loved grocery the Crunchy Carrot retired, the town jumped at the opportunity to support a community buyout and the share offer was hugely successful. Affectionately known as The Crunch, the shop doesn’t just sell fruit and veg, it’s also a champion of local produce, a supplier to cafes, nurseries and schools and a source of cooking tips for those with small budgets.

You could visit Dunbar without knowing anything of these initiatives. The post-pandemic tourist may simply come here to enjoy the sun, the sea breeze and the space in which to walk or cycle

You could visit Dunbar without knowing anything of these initiatives. The post-pandemic tourist may simply come here to enjoy the sunshine, the sea breeze and the space in which to walk or cycle. The town itself has plenty of attractions and you can also stride out in either direction along the coastline: heading west, a clifftop walk will lead you to the broad sands of Belhaven Bay and the John Muir Country Park; eastwards you’ll come to Whitesands Bay and Barns Ness lighthouse. The geology along this entire coastline is fascinating.

But if you look a bit more closely, you’ll realise that there’s more than meets the eye here. Did you buy your lunch from the bakery? It’s another community-owned business. Fancy a paddle-boarding lesson at the Coast to Coast surf school? This family-run business, in addition to being part of Surfers Against Sewage, has its own wide-ranging environmental action plan. Did you enjoy an art exhibition at the Town House? It was probably facilitated by local arts organisation North Light Arts, which aims to stimulate “creative conversations” between artists and communities about our place in the environment. The list goes on.

Dunbar castle remains

None of these initiatives will be meaningful in the long term unless it engages the younger generation – and that’s exactly what’s happening. There are groups such as Muddy Buddies, where pre-schoolers are encouraged to have fun outside, foraging and getting muddy in the community woodlands. The local primary school, located away from the road network, was designed to be deliberately unfriendly to cars, so children become used to walking, cycling or scooting to school. All Primary 5 classes across East Lothian do a John Muir Project as part of their Citizenship curriculum, involving art and drama, getting outside with the Countryside Rangers and visiting John Muir’s birthplace.

Much-loved community grocery store the Crunchy Carrot

Naomi Barnes, Sustaining Dunbar’s food alliance coordinator, talks about the ripple effect of everything that goes on, saying: “Dunbar is full of quirky things that all add up to something special. It’s infectious, it gives people confidence and enthusiasm to try out new things. The Trust is a springboard for ideas – every town should have one!”

It’s surely no stretch of the imagination to say that John Muir would have approved.

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