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Jack of one trade

Businesses in the materials sector seem to be more active than ever, diversifying into new markets or looking into new avenues to boost profits. Paper merchant Pulp Friction is no different. Set up in 2004 by managing director Steve Oliphant, operations director Ben Cox and sales director Scott O’Brian, Pulp Friction has recently opened its first MRF in Erith, Kent. This sorts mixed paper, under its newly established sister paper sorting company SBS Paper, and the firm has gone from strength to strength.

“We specifically set up SBS Paper to sort kerbside- collected paper and post-MRF mixed papers into better grades. So now with the MRF we can basically turn mixed paper into news and pams,” O’Brian says.

The MRF sorts 3,500 tonnes of paper each week, working at 80% capacity, and, according to O’Brian, is the only mixed paper MRF in Greater London.

“We need to move with the times - those days when a paper merchant used to sort mixed papers on the floor of his site are long gone”

“Before SBS, we only handled printer grades, but the volume of material wasn’t there because printers can only produce so much. So we decided to take on council contracts,” he says. “Because the paper is mixed it is classed as lower grade, so you get less money for it. But by having the MRF, each grade of paper can be sorted and sold individually.”

By sorting mixed papers into grades, the quality of the material increases, making it much more desirable. O’Brian says: “Quality is paramount. We pride ourselves on our high quality. We believe the UK paper mills are the best set-up mills in Europe and they will not take any rubbish. We never have enough paper for mills to take, which is a nice position to be in.”

The paper is mechanically sorted using TiTech optical sorters.

“The MRF gives us more options in the market-place as a business. We didn’t want to look at other materials because we thought we’d stick to what we’re good at and we know about paper. In total, the founders of the company have more than 50 years’ experience. We didn’t want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.”

Yet SBS was launched at the height of the recession and the MRF began running about a year ago, which would seem to be a risky move because the effect that the economy was having on commodities markets. However, Pulp Friction saw it as a time to take advantage of lower equipment prices and running costs, stepping its company up to the next level.

“If we stood still, nothing would get done,” says O’Brian. “We need to move with the times - those days when a paper merchant used to sort mixed papers on the floor of his site are long gone.”

Pulp Friction’s long-term contracted partner is UPM, which owns a paper mill in Shotton, Deeside. Pulp Friction and SBS collect and sort paper on UPM’s behalf, then send it back via the mill to be reprocessed. It is a pairing that O’Brian is very proud of, and he is keen to explain that the MRF would not have been possible without UPM’s head of recovered paper sourcing, Craig Robinson.

As a business, turnover has doubled year on year since Pulp Friction properly entered the market in 2004 and grew stronger in the recession “because we hedged our bets”, O’Brian says. “There is obviously a bit of luck involved because we seemed to be in the right place at the right time in terms of getting contracts. I believe if your service is good, your material is good and you pay people on time, then you are not going to have any problems.”

This down-to-earth attitude is the key to Pulp Friction’s success, although the addition of the MRF has helped. A second mixed paper MRF is being planned, with proposals to see it up and running in the next 12 to 18 months. Its location is yet to be revealed but O’Brian says it will be bigger than the current facility.

It seems SBS and Pulp Friction, along with their MRFs, are establishing themselves as high-level collectors and sorters. They definitely could not be accused of standing still.

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