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Big Interview: quality matters for Gemma Barratt

During my conversation with Aylesford Newsprint’s recycling manager, Gemma Barratt, I ask her if she considers herself an environmentalist. Barratt recoils and I get the impression she considers herself too much of a pragmatic businessperson to wear that label.

Even so, Barratt says she became interested in environmental issues while studying A levels and went on get a degree in environmental studies. And while she shrinks at the suggestion she is an environmentalist, her passion and concern are clear. “I bore my friends silly with the recycling side of things,” she says. “It’s really about taking responsibility for your actions, that’s what environmentalism should be.”

Barratt was appointed recycling manager at the famous Kent mill in November last year after five years at the firm, latterly as recycling operations manager. Her appointment followed the departure of her predecessor Andrew Perkins in September 2011 after just 18 months in the job. At the same time Aylesford’s co-parent company SCA installed the president of its Laakirchen mill, Mark Lunabba, as managing director.

Because Aylesford produces its newsprint from 100% recycled fibres, Barratt’s role as recycling manager is at the very heart of the operation. And recycling is at the very heart of Aylesford: it was using 20% recycled fibre in 1968, and has been 100% since 1984.

“Waste management is such a huge industry with significant impacts, the fact I can feel comfortable that I’m part of a company that is doing something for the environment is important.”

“I’m conscious that all this paper, this huge volume, 500,000 tonnes per year, is being stopped from going to landfill. That is a real driver for me.”

I meet Barratt in a meeting room at the enormous site where paper has been produced since 1922.  During our conversation, it becomes clear there is something of an internal refocus going on under the new MD. And Barratt is keen to emphasise her department’s renewed focus on relationships with suppliers and communication and, most of all, quality.

While she insists the theme of her reign overseeing the company’s sourcing and recycling operations will be continuity, she also gives careful hints at where she intends to make changes.

When we get onto the subject of source material quality Barratt admits a departure from her predecessors’ more forthright commitment to source segregation. In the past, Aylesford, through the Paperchain trade body, was affiliated with the Campaign for Real Recycling. But Barratt says the company now has a more pragmatic approach, concerned more with quality of material, than collection methods.

“I think previous people in this position had more of an approach of, ‘we would like this collection method’. As local authorities have evolved, and as some of them change how they do things and review how they do things, I think it’s very area specific. What works in one area, wouldn’t necessarily work in another. We would certainly say we have our preferred collection method, but we are not dictating.”

As a former waste minimisation officer at SITA, perhaps Barratt brings a greater understanding of the developments in the waste management sector into the reprocessing world. So, what does she think about MRFs, for years the bugbear of reprocessors? Again, Barratt shows a pragmatism focussed on quality and cooperation with suppliers.

“As there have been progressions in technology, commingling certainly has its place if the MRF is focussed on the particular commodities as a resource, rather than waste which has to be disposed of.

“If it’s focused on a market, and achieving a good price because it’s good quality, and it’s supplying a UK market, we feel MRF technology has caught up.”

She says at one point Aylesford was having problems finding a MRF which could deal with glass - a big problem if it gets into the mill. They are now comfortable that the technology can handle it.

At the time of our meeting MRW was reporting Lord Taylor’s comments that Defra would begin consulting on the long-anticipated MRF code of practice in the summer. The big issue has been whether any code will be compulsory.

As one would expect, Barratt, as a customer of that post-MRF material, supports a compulsory code: “Unless it is compulsory, then you’re only ever going to get the people who play the game signing up to it. Unless it’s compulsory, I think it’s going to be little bit of a pointless exercise.

“From my point of view, anything that regulates an activity will always be good. I’m aware that there’s a lot of talk about it involving quality testing on input and output and I think that’s fundamental.” 

But, she adds, with that constant focus on supplier relations right through the supply chain, “unless the communication is effective back out to the local authorities supplying commingled material, that’s an area where it can fall down”.

“So it’s very important that this code of practice also flows through to the suppliers of commingled material as well as the MRF operators. But, yes, we would fully support that sort of code of practice.”

Barratt admits Aylesford has faced difficult times through the economic crisis: the company had to seek voluntary redundancies in 2008 at the time of the market collapse: “never pleasant, but well handled” and “for the good of the business”.

But, she says, “the good thing is we’re still here, still operating strongly, still shouting the Aylesford name”. And while the firm has had to make “difficult decisions” and has had to “hold back on investing in areas where we would’ve like to have invested”, Barratt says they have plans to weather these difficult economic times.

“From our suppliers’ point of view and from an industry point of view it will be business as usual. But there will be changes internally, revisions of our strategy, how we adopt fibre sourcing.”

At one point during the interview I stumble around the question of gender. Waste management is, after all a male-dominated industry from top to bottom, Barratt stands out as a young (in her early thirties) woman in a senior position. While I feel slightly embarrassed asking a clearly successful, confident woman about gender, Barratt’s response is revealing. Before I have finished asking the question, she shoots back: “I don’t even think about it”. And why should she? “To me it’s completely irrelevant” she continues, “the fact is I’m a person doing the job”.

Then, she adds: “What I’m usually more conscious about is that I’m younger than my peers, not the fact I’m a female. But hopefully, when I’m in a meeting with people and when I’m talking to them, they’ll realise that I do have the experience.”

Barratt is clearly focused on the wider issues in the industry as well as the day-to-day operations of her job. But, she is also passionate about the mill itself. When she takes me on a tour of the site later, there is an element of pride I’m not sure many people have in their workplaces. She tells me taking people on the tour around the two enormous machines on the sprawling 100-acre site is one of the favourite aspects of her job.

“When we have visitors to the mill, we’ve taken them around, they’ve seen the process, they’re genuinely, really impressed. And they become more enthusiastic, they see why we’re so focussed on quality because we require a resource, because we’re making a finished product, and you see that full loop and at the end you see something that’s going out to be sold. And at the end, they get it.”

Gemma Barratt’s CV

Gemma Barratt

After studying environmental studies at Manchester Met University, Gemma began her career on a graduate trainee programme with engineering giant WS Atkins, involved in transport planning. She then worked as a waste minimisation officer with SITA before moving to Guildford Borough Council as a recycling officer. She joined Aylesford in 2006 as recycling operations manager before her appointment as recycling manager in November 2011.

Best day in the job: “My best days are when we have visitors to the mill, we’ve taken them around, they’ve seen the process, they’re genuinely, really impressed.”

Worst day in the job: “When we hear that a good quality, source segregated scheme is going to be changed to commingled using a MRF that we know can’t achieve our quality specification.”

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