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Times past in recycling: an industry remembers

Philip Ward is a former WRAP director for local government services

I’m old enough to remember when dustbins (ash cans) were just that. They held mainly ash from open fires and were emptied by hand into semi open trucks. Food was collected separately for pigswill. Plastic packaging didn’t exist and bulky waste went to a rag and bone man – sometimes in exchange for a goldfish.

As private secretary to Chris Patten, I had to deal with the reaction to the UK’s first recycling target in 1990. The “impossible” 50% target had to be hurriedly reinterpreted as “50% of recyclable waste” which became 25% of total household waste and was achieved in 2005 – five years late. Now we are approaching 50% recycling. We all owe a lot to the social enterprises that have lead the way.

As the responsible Director in DETR, I was heavily involved in preparing Waste Strategy 2000. It saw the creation of LATS and the establishment of WRAP. Public attitudes have changed. What was quirky is now mainstream. Councils are more likely to be attacked for doing too little than too much. But we still have a hill to climb to achieve zero waste and a functioning circular economy.

Ian Martin is a former editor of MRW and maintains strong links with the industry

The past 27 years have brought many changes. The proliferation of legislation has triggering an on-going battle to gain acceptance among law-makers that the recycling industry produces secondary raw materials rather than “waste”. And the recycling industry has gone global - in the past, domestic consumers absorbed a far larger proportion of UK-arising scrap and recovered paper.

Another major change has been the greater recognition of the recycling industry’s environmental contribution. For example, the BIR study a few years ago confirmed a massive reduction in carbon dioxide emissions when using secondary rather than virgin materials.

One of my predecessors as editor of MRW, Ian Cooper, told me that his decision to join the magazine in the 1960s was guided by the fact that the recycling industry is one of the few with a ‘moral imperative’. This is an industry that deserves the support of magazines, the public and politicians because its work is founded on an essential morality: that we should be loyal custodians of the earth’s resources for the benefit of generations to come. 

Peter Jones is a former Biffa director and founder of consultancy Ecolateral

Peter Jones

For me the light bulb went on after reading the output from the Wuppertal Institute in the nineties and demonstration of the linkages between the integrative economy represented by gross domestic product evaluation and the matching but undervalued potential of the disintegrative “back-end” economy.

Unfortunately the timetable has been fouled up by timid political commitment (once the landfill tax landmark had passed) and the unerring ability of the sector players to fight amongst themselves.

However we are likely to see a shift in profit and added value from gate fees to efficient production of second time around resources. Who could joke about the potential of waste way back in 1989.

Ray Georgeson MBE is chief executive of the Resource Association

Ray Georgeson

When I first got involved in organising waste paper collections as a volunteer, it was Scouts, churches and local FoE groups who were the main providers of paper collections from households, organised for fundraising as well as for the environment.  Today, kerbside recycling is mainstream. The pioneers of the type of kerbside recycling were Avon Friends of the Earth in Bristol in the late 70s/early 80s and they provided me with the inspiration to get involved.

Over the years, I have been impressed by many organisations and admired many individuals, but it is the enduring effort of the community sector that still provides the real inspiration. 

Ross Barry is business development director of family-run textile recycling firm LMB

Ross Barry

My father Larry stumbled into the industry post war. He had been selling lorries when his biggest customer Mr Moore of T.P Moore & Co ‘General Merchants’ offered him a job. The business then was almost exclusively recycling ropes from the East London docks, hessian sacks from the markets or string from the Post Office. Everything had a use - at worst it went into roofing felt.

In my father’s day ‘uncle Arthur’ would buy a suit when he got married and a few christenings, trip up west with the missus and occasional court appearance later he was still wearing it day-in-day-out so by the time it was thrown away it really was only good for recycling. Later on, fashion changed so quickly people threw it away after having barely worn it.

Second hand clothing is now a multibillion dollar global industry. Behind the charity shop curtain is a whole industry providing jobs in this country and the developing world. In the eighties demand came from Africa for reusable clothing. In Africa you’re not just providing jobs for the market stall holders who sell the clothing, but the people who work in the docks, unload the containers, and the army of bureaucrats that handle documents and taxes. Many of my original customers have started new businesses and I am proud to think in a small way our industry has helped Africa develop, not from aid, but from commercial dealing on an equal footing.

Africa is changing beyond recognition. Will there come a time when they buy new? I remember talking to my father about this, who casually looked up from his paper and told me, it will never last: ‘Tom Moore used to sell clothes to southern Italy post war, then the Italians got wealthy and started making their own’. So watch out Milan, Millawi may produce the next Prada. That said has the world got the resources for everyone to buy new, or will reuse become a necessity? (My mum was a re-use pioneer as I was often dressed in hand-me-downs, which doesn’t sound too bad except I had an older sister.)

In the early nineties when I was Textile Recycling Association president we fought hard to stop the EU classifying reusable clothing as waste, otherwise most of Africa would have put an embargo on it.  We won, it’s a necessary and scarce resource, which isn’t waste provided it is sorted and fit for purpose i.e. to wear.

Demand from Eastern Europe doubled our market to the point where demand is outstripping supply, pushing prices up. Austerity cuts means local government want a piece of the pie. Who can blame them? My only concern is so many tenders weighted heavily on price. I’m not an economist but what’s better - an extra £100 a tonne or a job for a low skilled person who may otherwise be on benefits?

The latest spectre are the ‘cash for clothes’ firms - who would have thought it, buying clothing direct from the public… the last horse drawn ‘Rag’n Bone’ man came into our factory in 1993. I’m not sure if he exchanged a gold fish or cash for his clothing.

Chris Dow, CEO of Closed Loop Recycling

Chris Dow

Ten years ago, recycling infrastructure was non-existent, recycling rates stood at 3% and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of supposedly ‘waste’ material was sent to landfill. The change over the last decade has been monumental and something akin to a modern day industrial revolution.  


Mark Schofield is a director at family metal recycling business JB Schofield & Sons

Mark Schofield

Having traded on the same site for 136 years we have seen many changes. My working day is vastly different to my father’s. He would spend two hours a day on the phone and ten hours in the yard. Today, besides the practical knowledge, I need a driver CPC, machinery certificates, Transport managers CPC, a Wamitab certificate, and I am the company H&S officer and IT manager.

Compared with the restrictive practices in the days of permits to supply the steelworks, the export markets opened the world up. This raised other problems as without a niche market smaller merchants have to both fight and feed the large exporters - for all grades of scrap - who have economy of scale, working on the supermarket principle of large volume and low margin.

The advent of massive shears and fragmentisers brought mixed blessings. It provided a ready outlet for low grade material but swallowed up the better grades.

Our industry is an easy target in the current metal theft furore; 130 years of successful recycling, generating billions for the economy, forgotten in an instant.


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