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Big Interview: Nathan Bowles

Recruitment entrepreneur Nathan Bowles had his ‘light bulb moment’ when staffing and resourcing a MRF for his previous employer, Greenstar Recycling.

The amount of recyclable material coming into the site was so variable that there would either be too many or too few workers to handle it.

Similarly, high staff turnover could lead to picking lines manned by inexperienced workers. All this made it difficult to analyse long-term labour requirements.

“Recycling is a volatile industry in the sense that you have to deal with peaks and troughs with the supply chain,” he says. “You need to react to the market quickly and efficiently - be it adding shifts on or taking shifts off”.

Lacked motivation

This variation is driven by unstable material values, and events such as Christmas and New Year causing sudden spikes in the labour required to deal with incoming waste.

Bowles said recycling tenders can be won and lost very quickly and local authorities can change their collection tactics, which requires flexibility in labourers and skillsets.

Moreover, despite people being generally the most expensive cost in the waste and recycling sector, Bowles identified that many staff lacked motivation and didn’t have the training.

He says: “I went out to ‘agency land’ and I couldn’t find one [agency] that was in tune with the requirements.”

MRF Code

He went away and developed his idea for a unique recruitment agency offering flexible and bespoke staff hire.

The new-found entrepreneur went back to Greenstar Recycling and successfully pitched his idea of a centralised pool of trained workers, which could be hired on a temporary basis.

Smart Solutions was born.

The MRF Code of Practice, which aims to improve quality of recyclates coming out of MRFs, was recently laid before Parliament.

Bowles says: “It’s positive for the industry. It gives plants a way of benchmarking their performance against one another.”

Hands-on job

When asked how the legislation affects his business, he says: “We are trying to get ahead of the game by running sampling paths and inspections. We’ve already started training people in quality grades so they understand the difference between high and low performing plants.” It is mainly up to MRFs to implement the code as it won’t be rigorously assessed, he adds.

Part of the attraction of Bowles’ services is that Smart Solutions promises to take away vast amounts of the administration required in dealing with staff.

Bowles says his workers tend to be lower paid than those in the manufacturing industry, for example. This is because manufacturing roles using machinery tend to be higher skilled. “If you look at the waste sector, it’s still fairly basic; it’s a hands-on type of job. There’s nothing that has been designed to replace people picking on lines.

“Most recycling plants have a degree of automation but they still rely on humans to go in and use their hands and do the final quality pick for the end product.”


Due to this lower income, Bowles says his staff prefer to be paid on a weekly basis.

“The challenge for us is that we have to process 4,000 people’s pay every week and have the cash to pay them.

“The hardest part of running the business is cashflow.”

The company has invested around £500,000 in advanced online systems to deal with pay.

Equally, health and safety is clearly a major concern for the company, but it appears that some parts of the industry are not as careful. “Some MRFs’ safety standards aren’t high enough,” says Bowles. “For example, in Wales there was a MRF where safety standards clearly weren’t in place, so we refused to send our staff there.”


The firm provides more than 200 flexible staff for paper recycler UPM’s MRF at Shotton in North Wales.

The plant reported zero lost-time accidents for the 12 months August 2012 to August 2013, which Bowles said was unusual for a MRF. He claimed this was down to high supervision levels and thorough safety training.

Smart Solutions’ MRF health and safety results for the past quarter show a reduction in accidents. There were no obligations to report dangerous occurrences (RIDDORs) and no lost-time accidents. There were 74 accidents; 50% of these occurred from hand injuries. Based on this quarter in 2012, there was a 24% reduction in all accidents.

While accidents are reducing, the company’s rapid growth continues. After a first year turnover of £250,000 the company snowballed to a point where it is forecast to turn over more than £50m in its sixth financial year of trading (see box). The figures are testament to Bowles’ company appearing five years in a row in the Welsh Fast Growth 50, an awards initiative that identifies the 50 fastest growing businesses in Wales.

  • Financial year        Turnover
  • 2008/09                 £250,000
  • 2009/10                 £6m
  • 2010/11                 £14m
  • 2011/12                 £28m
  • 2012/13                 £38m
  • 2013/14                 £52-54m (forecast)

The company started at the beginning of the economic recession with an aggressive growth strategy.

“This was an anomaly at the time and made us subject to regular check-ups by the banks,” says Bowles.

His staff numbers have grown from three to 150. Smart Solutions’ more than 4,000 trained workers range from sort-line pickers and refuse collectors to commercial and sales representatives.

The company provides staff to over a quarter of WRAP-registered MRFs in the UK, with more than 50% of company revenue coming from the recycling sector. The business also provides services to a wide range of sectors including aerospace, administration and manufacturing

When asked whether the business might ever leave the waste sector behind, Bowles says: “No I don’t think so. It is a core fundamental part of our business and what we want to do is add to the service we offer, as opposed to reducing it.”

Supply chains

The firm provides staff and monitors their performance on site with a Key Performance Indicator regime. “We’ve got a lot of industry best-practice knowledge to improve the performance and efficiency of the plant,” says Bowles.

Workers are taught to understand how their actions at one end of the supply chain affect the sorting lines further along, to give them focus and motivation.

Databases on workers’ training history mean that if they have picked glass before, for example, they can be placed back in a similar position to maximise efficiency.

Bowles says his own experience in a streamlined electronics environment has helped him to understand where labour fits into supply chains.

Credited exporter

As a result, his firm also advises companies while mobilising and commissioning MRFs to ensure the best possible placement of workers.

He adds: “That would involve assisting with risk assessment, standard operating procedures, induction, but also assisting with recruitment of all the senior personnel that they might need to run the plant.”

Furthermore, in some cases, the company is able to buy the commodities that are produced at the end of the MRF line, Smart Solutions is a credited exporter.

Looking ahead at the company’s five-year growth plan, Bowles says: “In the long-term it is about making sure we can offer something to every MRF in the country.

Cottage industries

“Our drive is to improve the performance of the sector, by helping them improve their KPIs, keep them cost-effective, but keep the high quality production.

“That’s our objective - to be seen as a leading light in the sector.”

He has set an ambitious target of turning over £100m by the company’s tenth birthday.

He adds that the future of the waste sector will involve “more cottage industries” in recycling.

“We have dealt with the easy [materials] and now for a more circular approach, we need to deal with more specific recycling opportunities.”


Bowles qualified as an HR professional and joined waste management company Biffa in 2003 where he won depot of the year award.

In 2007 he became National Operations Manager for Greenstar Recycling.

He was just 29 when he started Smart Solutions in 2008.

He was awarded the South Wales Chamber of Commerce award for Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010.

Career low: “First day in the waste industry having left the highly efficient electronics industry behind.”

Career high: Smart Solutions’ 5th anniversary ball.

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