Polythene doesn’t have to be the enemy of climate emergency protesters, says James Woollard of Polythene UK
Everything comes wrapped in polythene. From nuts and bolts to new sofas – even an entire modular hotel bathroom can now be built off-site and protected in transit by metres and metres of this wonder material.
Polythene, the most common form of plastic, is essential to modern life. It protects goods in transit and preserves products for longer, reducing waste.
For years this versatile material (discovered accidentally by a British polymer chemist in 1933) has enabled global trade, and doesn’t deserve the bad press it’s getting.
Because the only negative thing about polythene is that it has traditionally come from fossil fuel.
But what if the polythene that wraps pretty much everything which needs to be transported on ships, lorries and vans, was made from recyclable waste?
It’s not a pipe dream, says James Woollard of Witney-based Polythene UK, which is pioneering a new plant-based polythene made from the waste produce of sugar cane. Called Polyair, James says it is the first packaging product to be certified as carbon neutral by the Carbon Trust.
“This is waste produced from an existing crop which would otherwise go to landfill,” he said.
“The UK is a net importer of the raw material from Indonesia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, so we might as well import something that’s carbon neutral.”
But James didn’t launch Polythene UK in 2008 to save the planet. “I wanted a company that was better at delivering polythene than anybody else, and we are that by a mile. I didn’t set out to reduce the world’s carbon footprint, but I’m pleased we do.”
Polythene UK’s core business is to develop thinner, stronger polythene. The company aims to reduce polythene thickness by 20 per cent, which reduces waste – and cost to businesses.
Manufacturing businesses pay around £400 a tonne for the polythene they use. This goes via the Environment Agency to improve and expand our recycling capabilities.
“Using thinner material, a business’s 10 tonnes of polythene becomes eight tonnes,” explained James. “Each one tonne of polythene costs the planet 2.6 tonnes of CO2. So that’s 5.2 tonnes of CO2 saved just by reducing the thickness of the polythene. It’s the simple things that count and the plastic is as strong.”
Since its launch in 2008, Polythene UK now turns over £14 million annually and last year hit £1 million profit.
The company doesn’t manufacture its polythene in bulk, it has contracted with factories in Southampton and Hereford to do that. An unremarkable (but carbon neutral, James points out), factory on a Witney industrial estate is home to its research and development department, a small samples production plant and 29 staff.
Don’t confuse recyclable with compostable polythene
Understanding what can be recycled or reused is increasingly confusing as new materials are released into the market.
Take compostable polythene, now being used by some of the UK’s major supermarkets. It’s made out of waste products such as potato or corn starch which will decompose within two to six weeks. Great for UK households which compost (around three per cent). But for the whopping 97 per cent which don’t and whose food waste is collected weekly, a headache for the anaerobic digesters they are destined for.
Compostable bags are stretchy, clog up their systems, and don’t rot down fast enough for the UK’s anaerobic digesters to compost them. Instead, the bags and their contents have to be shredded and incinerated or sent to landfill.
Recyclable polythene is different. It can be washed, sorted, chopped and reinstated into “new” polythene in a perfect example of the circular economy.
But until 2017 the UK didn’t have to adopt the technology required to do this because we sent a significant amount of our waste to China. Now the world’s most populated nation no longer accepts our rubbish.
The UK should take lessons from France, says James. He cites the example of Groupe Barbier, a major producer of polythene films for agriculture and industry which has invested 50 million euros in a recycling centre.
Plastics are dropped into a 100-metre pool underneath its production plant that cleans and segregates the materials (which float at different levels based on their densities), to be recycled appropriately. There is no such facility in the UK – yet, but James is calling for local councils to collaborate and invest. Such a facility could, he says, provide them with a valuable revenue stream.
“100,000 tonnes of polythene waste a year would produce £40 million in tax revenue to fund the plant. If a consortium of 40 councils invested £1 million each, they would get their investment back after one year and the investment would begin to produce revenue for them, because the recycled polythene will have a high resale value.”
A natural born salesman
It’s not difficult to understand why Polythene UK has been so successful so quickly. James is a fast-thinking, fast talking salesman who harnesses logic to engage with customers.
Now 43, his first experience of selling was work experience at 14 years old, when he was asked to sell specialist insurance to hotels.
“I made about 20 appointments in my first morning, so my sister suggested that when I left school, I should apply to work for the double glazing company in London that employed her.”
Aged 16, James was in a cubicle for eight hours a day cold calling from a telephone directory and offering no-obligation quotes. “I couldn’t understand why people who didn’t have double glazing wouldn’t want a quote,” he said.
“I said to them ‘our salespeople can’t force you to buy it, don’t be scared’. I needed to make four appointments a week.” He was making 16.
A job offer in Swindon saw him relocate. He found a flat in Carterton where the former tenant was a sales manager for a local polythene company. They got chatting and he persuaded James to forego the 45-minute daily commute to Swindon and join the Carterton company instead.
“I started selling polythene and realised the stuff was everywhere,” said James. After two years he was outselling his sales manager, who left when James was promoted over him.
He might have been selling well, but the company James worked for was poor at customer service and quality control, So he set up his own company, Polythene UK, to run a business how he thought it should be run.
And he stuck to his commitment to put the customer first. “We even hired a helicopter to get polythene to a customer on time. Years later we still have that customer.”
He also paid attention to emerging polythene technology, developing a wider product offer, and built his customer base from the SME sector.
“I don’t like dealing with very large companies,” he said. “The buyers are rude, there is no loyalty and they can quickly switch suppliers. With smaller companies we can build up a relationship, I understand their issues better and know some of the names of their kids.”
His ambition for the business remains, and his enjoyment too – there’s still a lot to achieve. “We want to continue to deliver 10 per cent growth in profit year on year and I want to invest in my staff.
“We all live fairly close to the office; I like the people I work with and thanks to the success of the business I am able to attract those who have the skills to grow the business faster.”