Waste management isn’t a rubbish idea

Pictured: Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman, Grundon Waste Management
Neil Grundon

The world wants less rubbish, but it’s going to take technology and innovation to deliver this successfully. Grundon, which celebrates 90 years in business this year, is spearheading the charge By Nicky Godding

Do you recycle? That’s a rhetorical question – we all do now. But do you know what to recycle, where and how – and what happens to it? There is so much conflicting information and advice.

Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says too many of us have lost touch with what we can and can’t recycle – and few appreciate how much of our waste isn’t recycled at all.

Three years ago, the UK was exporting almost half a million tonnes of plastic to China and Hong Kong. Then they told us they didn’t want it any more.

We weren’t alone in this. Europe may have one of the highest global plastic recycling rates, but it’s still the world’s largest exporter of waste to China and India. However, if and when Brexit happens, the UK will be looking at its rubbish in the face again and will have to make decisions on what to do with it, probably sooner than our erstwhile European colleagues.

Neil Grundon says that might not be a bad thing, because if we tackle the problem properly and early, we are more likely to come up with commercial solutions.

Taking inspiration from across the pond

Surprisingly we can learn from the USA. “North Americans are a lot more in touch with the packaging issue than Europeans.

“They use paper bags far more often and the bags usually have the name of the mill where the paper came from.

“The Americans are a capitalist society, they believe the consumer is king and love buying stuff, but they do fear environmental pollution. In Europe we still skirt around the idea of consumerism and tend to react by banning things.

“Take cotton buds – Europe wants to ban them. In America they make cotton buds out of paper.”

Grundon, which has its headquarters in Oxfordshire, wants people to create less waste, but that won’t threaten its success and profitability. However much is recycled, there will always be rubbish. “We look for ways to reuse waste of all kinds,” said Neil. “We want to be able to collect more, sort it better and then supply it in a form that others can use.”

He believes in the circular economy and that all industries should be designing a product from disposal up – like the American cotton buds. Not product down.

There’s a bit of the Ricky Gervais about Neil. His slightly off-the-wall approach is tempered by a deep commitment to what he does.

And that mindset often enables him to see commercial opportunities others miss.

Making waste carbon neutral

Take an idea Neil came across around 10 years ago. It was for the development of an award-winning, patented process which recycles air pollution control residues (APCr) from Energy from Waste facilities into the world’s first truly carbon-negative aggregate. The aggregate can be used as a building material.

Grundon invested, taking the technology from pilot to fully working plant. The company invested millions building a second plant at Avonmouth near Bristol and in February, Carbon Aggregates opened its third plant in Leeds.

To date, Carbon8 Aggregates has locked up enough carbon dioxide by planting 49 square miles of trees, a sum that is growing year-on-year.

“A business which started as a lab experiment now employs 80 people,” said Neil. “It’s the first commercial carbon capture and storage business, using up waste carbon dioxide that would otherwise have been vented into the atmosphere, locking it up for ever in building materials. It’s one of the most exciting things that we, as a company, have ever done.”

This could be a world-beating innovation, he added, and it makes sense commercially. “It’s great watching a young company grow and being inspired by their enthusiasm.”

The long view gives wider perspectives

Having worked in the family business for most of his adult life (he’s going to be 50 this year), Neil joined when it was more about disposal and landfill than about waste management as it is today, so where did his environmental enthusiasm come from?

The Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, he says, where he studied for a year before heading to Australia to work on a sheep farm. The whole agricultural college experience was new to him. “I’d grown up in suburbia and never met any landed gentry before.”

To his surprise they were, by and large, very similar to him, “Apart from the fact that they seemed to have a remarkable amount of money and very nice cars.”

It was thanks to the tutors and fellow students at Cirencester that he began to understand crop rotation, the importance of soil structure and good land management.

“I was talking to people who knew what worked for the soil and what didn’t. There was a feeling even then that we couldn’t carry on chucking fertiliser on the land willy nilly, and unless we improved the soil structure it wasn’t going to get any better.”

Enough electricity to power Slough, thanks to energy from waste

As well as promoting re-use and recycling, Grundon operates a huge Energy from Waste facility at Colnbrook, near Slough. In fact, it’s sitting on what could become Heathrow’s third runway.

The recovery of energy from waste has a major part to play within the waste hierarchy. Once the preferred options of reducing, re-using and recycling waste resources have been exhausted, energy from waste is one of the best available techniques for recovering energy from the residual waste that remains, and Grundon produces 38 megawatts of energy at its Colnbrook plant.

This is enough to power all of the houses in Slough, whereas a solitary windmill produces one megawatt – but only if the wind is blowing.

That’s not to say that wind doesn’t have a place, Neil said firmly. “You need an energy mix, and more importantly in an uncertain world, you need energy security.”

Neil travels all over the world to look at new ways to manage and reduce waste, and points out that each country manages its waste in a different way.

“Switzerland incinerates 95 per cent of its waste, feeding in disposable plastic because it burns well. Japan does the same. There, households are given a combustible bin and a glass bin. In these countries, using items such as ketchup sachets is OK, because they are incinerated to produce energy, but if you are in Indonesia, they are much more environmentally damaging.

The same in the Caribbean. The only means of waste disposal there is landfill. And it’s called The Windies for a reason — loose plastic will blow into the sea.”

“These are extraordinary times. And they are exciting times. I like a bit of change, it’s never done anyone any harm and it’s time to use a bit of ingenuity”

This is where the world’s biggest brands need to better understand the countries they are selling into and how their waste is dealt with – and sell appropriate packaging for each country.

Back in Slough, Grundon is currently faced with the headache of having to potentially relocate its Energy from Waste plant from the site of Heathrow’s proposed third runway.

Neil is characteristically upbeat. “The plant became operational in 2010 and its technology remains best in class but if we are building it again, there may be more opportunities to do more with the heat we produce.

“I have absolute faith that the next generation of chemists, physicists, mathematicians and biologists will come up with the solutions. Whenever mankind has faced problems before, we’ve engineered our way out of them.”

And he’s proud of his 90-year-old family business, which is still chaired by his father Norman – a man with as much personality as his son.

Neil says: “We are a proper grown-up business with some really, really good people around us. Many of them are young and dynamic and that’s the best thing. As a business matures it’s nice to have a figurehead but what you really want is the very best people working for you and that’s what we have really majored on in the last five years. They have the drive and enthusiasm to move the business on.

“These are extraordinary times. And they are exciting times. I like a bit of change, it’s never done anyone any harm and it’s time to use a bit of ingenuity.”