Massive piles of scrap metal, cable and inert waste; long-reach excavators pulling down structures; vehicles taking materials off-site for a new life elsewhere. This is the scene that greets me at the former Aylesford Newsprint site in Kent – a facility that used to produce 400,000 tonnes of recycled newsprint a year, supply some of the main newspaper groups and employ 300 people. The business went into administration in February 2015 and now it is a vast demolition site.
When I last visited in late 2015, W&S Recycling had recently won the contract to clear the 100-acre site – its biggest project to date. According to commercial manager Tony Knowles, the Aylesford project is “certainly one of the largest projects ever undertaken in the south of England and probably anywhere in the UK mainland”.
W&S has sold around £10.5m-worth of process and manufacturing plant via specialist consultant John Wilkie Paper Mill Services. The PM14 newsprint manufacturing line, installed in 1995, was sold to China. It was dismantled and carefully packaged piece by piece by a team of around 20 specialists, who used 3D marking technology to ensure that they captured full information about where each bolt went and the angle of each part, so that it could be rebuilt on the other side of the world.
It left Kent in 165 container loads, all packaged and numbered, ready for its new life in China. PM14 is expected to be modified to manufacture an alternative material, believed to be thin card.
Sections of the older PM13 machine were sold to buyers in India, while ancillary equipment such as specialised motors and two drum pulpers – each weighing about 80 tonnes – were sold to Egypt. Some of the site buildings were also sold to other companies in the UK, having been deconstructed and transported for reassembly.
The emphasis from the outset of the project has been on adhering to the waste hierarchy, and trying first to find viable outlets for reuse before recycling. For example, Welsh slates on one building will be carefully taken off so that they can be re-sold, because there is good demand for them on restoration projects. As Knowles says, “you don’t get slates like that any more”. W&S estimates that more than 80% of the site’s materials, equipment and spares will be reused or recycled.
He explains that, after completing a comprehensive analysis, W&S decided to oversee the decommissioning and demolition in-house, using specialist personnel where required. This was to ensure the site had maximum operating efficiency and was fully compliant with health and safety (H&S), and construction design and management (CDM), legislative requirements.
tony knowles and charles thomas
Geoff Thompson, W&S chief executive, is overseeing the project and spends a considerable amount of his weekly working hours, and weekends, on-site. He is in charge of all the decommissioning and demolition works and negotiated the sale of all the equipment, with the assistance of John Wilkie.
He has been working closely with W&S site construction manager Charles Thomas, a former construction manager with Waites, who is based at the Aylesford site. Thomas has been responsible for producing the comprehensive CDM method statement documentation, risk assessment and H&S documents.
Aylesford is seen as a flagship project for W&S and one that it intends to use to prove what it can do. As a result of its work in Aylesford, the company won the contract for a similar operation in France and it has also been invited to tender for various European projects. Knowles explains that, with the decline in the likes of newsprint, as well as other industries in Europe, W&S sees a business opportunity in large-scale decommissioning and demolition projects.
It therefore decided to invest around £6m in specialist heavy-duty machinery, such as long-reach excavators and loading equipment, for the Aylesford project, with the ambition for it to be used on future major demolition schemes.
Knowles explains that the business is “confident that our diversification into major UK plant decommissioning/demolition projects will prove very successful, based on our reputation for high levels of customer service, competitive solutions and our proven ability to consistently meet project deadlines”.
He is anticipating the further demise of other paper mills and manufacturing facilities such as those for steel. “Unless you invest in a new product, you have got no chance. So they will go bust – they have to. We move our business about all the time. In the future, our business plan may well change. We have dropped certain market sectors and we are going to drop others that no longer become viable,” he says.
The opportunity for W&S lies in applying the skills it has learnt at Aylesford elsewhere because other projects will require the same kit, knowhow, method statements, CDM and so on.
The Aylesford site is now expected to be reduced to ground/slab level by around June 2018, ready for future development. Knowles explains that “delays caused by some site planning issues” have set back the project’s timeline, which was originally due to be completed by the end of this year. But the project is now moving into full swing and all existing site EA permits have now been signed off.
When I visit, the buildings are undergoing a ‘soft strip’, where the various metals are being pulled out, segregated and then sent away for recycling. W&S has vehicles that move ferrous and non-ferrous materials to merchants around the UK.
The site’s inert waste is being crushed on-site. Some of it is being used to backfill various voids in the ground because the site needs to be handed over in a safe state with level ground. Material not needed on the site itself is being sold as a graded type 1 material for use in road construction or building projects.
Thomas explains that one of the major challenges is that there is a railway track along the side of the site. This will mean that, for certain parts of the project, such as when a small bridge has to be lifted, the railway will have to be closed for the duration of the process to ensure safety. W&S also had to run a bespoke flood risk assessment due to its proximity to the river Medway, which also runs alongside the site.
The location of the famous PM14 machine is described as the heart of the site and this is expected to be the most difficult part of the project. Due to the weight of the PM14, the floor is estimated to be around a metre thick and well reinforced with 50mm rebar. Thomas explains that special attachments will be used on the machines to ‘nibble’ away the floors and break them down.
Knowles acknowledges that the project has been “a huge learning curve” and that the sequence of events has probably been the biggest thing learnt from the project.
“We have learned that you have got to get rid of the kit as quickly as you can when you take on a project for reuse,” he says. “Until you have sold as much as you can, you have got a big problem because you can’t really start any form of demolition. You can start soft stripping but it is limited. You have got to put a deadline on when you are going to get rid of [whatever can be reused].
“We did waste a lot of time, unknowingly, by speaking to people in different countries, who [messed us about], really – we went through weeks of negotiating and there was nothing in it at the end of it. We would have been better off doing without that. So the secret is getting rid of as much as you can for reuse straight away.
“But it is easier said than done because it is specialist kit. And everyone wants it for nothing. But if they are going to give you less than you get to scrap it, you are not going to do it.”
He adds that large projects such as Aylesford also come with large overheads, such as round-the-clock security and lighting, so you need to ensure that you sell what you can to get the money in to finance the project as you go along.
“There’s a phrase at W&S,” says Knowles, “we never have problems, we have challenges.”
The Aylesford project is no doubt challenging, but one the business has learnt, and is continuing to learn, from – and one that it hopes will pave the way for many more similar opportunities in the future.
The W&S Story
Chief executive Geoff Thompson is 69 this year but he is described by those who work with him as “just as keen as 20 years ago” and a real character, who would often be found popping into local scrap yards at the weekend with his wife.
The “old fashioned business man” who is the sole proprietor of the company, is described as a hands-on leader who likes to get things done, motivates those around him, and has a good heart and a sharp mind.
Originally in the building industry, Thompson was approached to be site manager for what was the Weymouth tip in the late 1980s, when it was run by the council. Within a couple of years he had turned it around from earlier inefficiency, and soon had the opportunity to run a site at Sherborne as well.
W&S stands for Weymouth and Sherborne Recycling – after these first two sites. Thompson was awarded his first contract by Dorset County Council in 1988.
Under Thompson’s leadership, the business has expanded to operate household recycling centres across Dorset and Oxfordshire. It also operates a nationwide WEEE service, a skip service for ferrous and non-ferrous metals, trade waste collections and house clearances in Poole.