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The Big Interview: Robert Fell

20 robert fell

It has been a year of change at the top for several prominent organisations in the recycling and resource management industry, and that number includes the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA).

From offices in Huntingdon, incom­ing chief executive Robert Fell has the task of banging the drum for a beleaguered metals industry. The issues will resonate for those outside the scrap metal sector: reputation, weak markets, regulation, exports, crime and, of course, the EU.

Although it is his first job managing a trade body, Fell has long experience in the metal packaging industry, including environmental responsibilities with the Metal Packaging Manufacturers’ Asso­ciation and the British Aerosol Manu­facturers’ Association.

“When I was approached about this [BMRA] role, I felt there was a very good fit,” he says. “I had been in the met­als sector for 31 years, but also heavily involved on the environmental side with recycling and the importance of it for metals. The opportunity seemed too good to pass up.”

Concern about public awareness of recycling metals – or a lack it – is a lesson learned from those days in packaging. “Metal packaging has phenomenal credentials in terms of recycling but, when sustainability became a big issue, we in the metals industry were quite smug. We thought, ‘well, it’s obvious – metal has always been recycled. The credentials are very clear and the bene­fits are irrefutable.’ So we said nothing.”

Fell felt that the wider media had been getting the message about paper, board and plastic but was questioning the sustainability goals of the metal industry: “We were completely floored because, although it was obvious to us, it was not obvious to them. We had completely missed it and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

“The important thing for metal recy­cling is that we can certainly learn from my previous industry about promoting the good side of metals.”

Fell senses that, too often, scrapyards are taken at face value: piles of metal, not very pretty and sometimes noisy.

“When people first think about scrapyards or metal recycling, they think very low tech. They just imagine chunks of metal being thrown around and being chopped into smaller pieces of metal. They have no idea the level of sophisti­cation that goes on to actually sort the metal, grade it, separate it into the dif­ferent metal types and separating ever-smaller amounts of material.

“Certainly, where you have higher value metals, for example stainless steel, these guys have laboratories that uni­versities would be proud of.” Fell began life as a research techni­cian with packaging firm Metal Box, so it is not surprising that he sets great store by data to reinforce the benefits of recycling.

“Copper is a lovely example. The aver­age global ore yield is 0.6-0.8% from copper ore now. It used to be greater but the higher yield ores have already been taken. If you are comparing that ore to a tonne of recycled copper that has been collected in the UK, it’s about a 200:1 ratio. So, for one tonne of recycled cop­per, or the equivalent, you need 200 tonnes of ore.”

Metals recycling in the UK is a £5.6bn industry, processing ferrous and non-ferrous metal scrap into vital sec­ondary raw material for the smelting of new metals. The industry employs more than 8,000 people. But the market for almost all secondary materials, includ­ing metals, is not in good shape.

Fell says: “Metal prices are still incredibly low, courtesy of material being dumped on the world market. Less material is coming across the thresholds of yards because, for those who have metal in their yard, there is no benefit in converting it into money because it is worth so little. So they’re holding on to it until the price goes up.”

Despite that gloomy outlook, Fell believes the essential structure of the industry supply chain will survive, from many small players, geographically widely spread across the UK, up to the big exporters and processors.

He also believes the vote in favour of Brexit offers some potential opportuni­ties in terms of exporting to the wider world. Turkey, Egypt and Indonesia are important markets, partly because they have electric arc steel furnaces that use 100% recycled material. Further easing of the end-of-waste regulations by the UK would make it easier to clas­sify scrap metal as a secondary raw material and not waste.

It would be great to be able simply to classify all our processed material as scrap metal because it would help our exporting considerably, and would take a lot of administrative burden and cost out of exports beyond Europe

“As an exporter, that gives the UK great problems going into countries such as Egypt that do not want to take waste. They want scrap metal but, if it’s classified as waste, it gives them a prob­lem,” he says. “Whereas for the US, it is classified as scrap metal and they have no issues.

“It would be great to be able simply to classify all our processed material as scrap metal because it would help our exporting considerably, and would take a lot of administrative burden and cost out of exports beyond Europe.”

Even so, the European connection remains strong. In 2014, the BMRA was instrumental in the setting up of EuRIC, the coming together of the European Ferrous Recovery and Recy­cling Federation, the European Recov­ered Paper Association and European Metal Trade and Recycling Federation.

“When we exit, we’re not exiting Europe, which will still be a big trading partner with us. It is important to have some routes into what is going on there. Obviously, we won’t be able to influence EU legislation as the UK but, if we are in EuRIC, then perhaps we can still have a voice.”

The plight of the national steel indus­try, a major customer for scrap metal, remains a big headache for the BMRA and its members.

“It needs to be saved. It’s very impor­tant strategically and also from a herit­age point of view – for goodness sake, we’re the home of the industrial revolu­tion. To lose all remnants of our steel industry is absolutely unthinkable.

“Fortunately, it seems that politicians agree, and have finally woken up to the fact that industry is important and it needs to be protected. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed.”

Another new lobbying force, UK Metals Council, similar to those in the automotive and aerospace industries, has also just been established and had its first meeting with senior civil servants in July. The industry has also set out its stall with the Vision 2030 strategy document.

“As the wider metals industry, we are now starting a dialogue with the Gov­ernment about the importance of the metals industry, and the fact that it needs to be nurtured and encouraged to grow, and how important that is. I think there seems to be a general understand­ing now that industry is important and needs to flourish.”

Another challenge for Fell, and one of his biggest, is the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act which, with other legislation, introduced a regime of licensing for metal dealers and the aim of outlaw­ing cash payments. The intention was to cut waste crime and, while there has been a significant fall in reports of lead being stripped from church roofs or war memorials – so-called heritage crime – it has not disappeared altogether.

The BMRA argues that the fragile state of the metal industry is under­mined by the continuing use of cash in transactions. When the legislation was framed a key BMRA request was not met: to make it illegal both to pay cash for scrap and, crucially, to receive cash.

Fell says: “The legislators decided that making only half the transaction illegal was enough [paying cash]. Now, since the Act has come into pass, that has been proved to be totally wrong, and potentially quite naïve, because you still have some companies with waste materials that like cash for scrap.

“We are convinced that most cash payments are not for stolen metal. The person selling the metal does own it, they just don’t want to declare it.”

Fell believes that legitimate owners of waste material being paid cash just to avoid tax would not want to risk reputa­tional damage: “If you have both sides of the transaction made illegal, I would suggest that you probably need only to prosecute one or two companies.

Frankly, these people do not want to be criminalised – they take cash because they believe the system allows them to do so.”

The same one-sided aspect of the legislation has been introduced this autumn in Scotland. But Fell believes there is greater willingness north of the border to enforce both the letter of the law and the spirit with an intensive campaign to make sure everybody understands the rules and their respon­sibilities.

“It is all about enforcement, and the proof of the pudding, as always, is in the eating. We’re optimistic. It’s a smaller community in terms of scrap dealers and all the rest of it, but it has to be enforced otherwise we will have the same situation as we have in England.”

The required five-year review of the Scrap Act has to be concluded by Sep­tember 2018 and the BMRA has per­suaded the Home Office to start that review early: “We’re very keen to get a much more level playing field for legiti­mate sites – that’s important.”

There’s an awful lot of effort put into health and safety and there’s a very strong emphasis on protecting employees and any subcontractors who come on-site

Another serious regulatory issue is health and safety, and the tragic deaths of five workers at the Hawkeswood metal recycling site in Birmingham this summer has cast a heavy pall over the industry.

“For five people to lose their lives in one incident is just shocking. But I would say, generally, these days the industry, despite the odd occasion, is very safe. There’s an awful lot of effort put into health and safety and there’s a very strong emphasis on protecting employees and any subcontractors who come on-site.”

The BMRA is currently updating its health and safety manual, working with the Health and Safety Executive to make sure the guidance is current. Fell says he is considering following the example of the Environmental Services Association and benchmarking the sec­tor against other industries, along with seeing how the BMRA fares when com­pared with other industry bodies.

The conversation moves to permit­ting, underlying the continuing debate about red tape and the balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ regulation. The BMRA has responded to the Government’s review of regulation on business: the Red Tape Challenge and recent Cutting Red Tape.

“We have made suggestions about simplifying things,” he says. “For exam­ple, if you have a well-performing site that has a history of being one, why not extend the time period between appli­cations? It reduces the administrative burden on the company. It also reduces the administrative burden on the Envi­ronment Agency and it rewards excel­lence. And if you have ISO 9000 or other externally moderated accredita­tions, again, maybe that should give you some credits in terms of how you are regulated.”

The difficult state of the market has affected the BMRA directly, with mem­bership down this year. “We had two or three members going out of business and some of the smaller yards have contacted us to say ‘sorry, we have had to decide between paying sal­aries this month or the membership fee’. So we have set up staged payments for members to make it easier because we know these are difficult times.

“I can’t believe the market can go much lower but only time will tell.”

18 robert fell cv

robert fell cv


Joined Metal Box in 1984 as a research technician. Metal Box became Carnaudmetal-box which in turn became Crown.

Later worked for small can maker USC Europe, which was bought by Impress which in turn was taken over by Ardagh Group, where he had a senior role in R&D.

“I’ve worked for six different can makers over the years, although I personally have only changed companies once.” Outside of work, Fell enjoys hillwalking and canoeing.



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