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Only ghosts left in the machine…

Aylesford newsprint’s former mill 2000

When I last visited Aylesford Newsprint’s plant some seven or eight years ago, the site was warm, bright and humming with newsprint-making activity.

But a visit in recent weeks – around 10 months after the business went into administration – shows a very different scene. It is eerie, cold and empty, apart from the huge silent machinery which is being sold off, and dark, with the lights off where not needed to save money.

Security staff still guard the site 24 hours a day and a small team can be found in the offices. Around a dozen specialist Aylesford staff have been retained, whose knowledge will help with the sale of equipment and the logistics of getting it out of the plant smoothly.

Dorset-based W&S Recycling has the contract to reduce the buildings to slab level and to dispose of all the equipment and production machines. The recycling firm has put a focus on reuse wherever possible.

W&S purchased from Aylesford’s official receiver KPMG the sole rights for the sale of all the site’s manufacturing and other equipment and material, such as spares, maintenance equipment, forklifts, office furniture and the vast number of items from the stores inventory, that includes nuts, bolts and bearings through to transformers/generators and motors.

The Aylesford project is a real scoop for W&S – a flagship project and the biggest it has taken on – but it will have its work cut out to clear the 100-acre site and reduce it to slab level in less than two years.

Geoff Thompson, W&S Recycling chief executive, is managing the project himself to ensure that it is concluded successfully within the timescale, with minimum disruption to the local community, and W&S commercial director Tony Knowles has been working alongside him. Knowles explains that the focus so far has been on reusing as much material and equipment as possible before the two main manufacturing buildings are dismantled.

“We have a specialist contractor on reuse of paper sector machinery called John Wilkie [Paper Mill Services]. He has been in touch with his contacts across the world during the past 10-12 weeks and then people have been contacting us. The team here has been showing people around, to see the equipment.”

As a result, W&S has negotiated a contract with a Chinese client for the sale of the main PM14 manufacturing line – subject to a number of specific legal points – while the two 100- tonne pulping machines have been sold to an Egyptian company.

Dismantling the PM14 line and other large machinery items is due to start in January. Due to the sheer size and complexity of the machine, it is estimated that around 20 weeks will be needed to dismantle the complete line. The machine will have to be taken apart into component pieces, logged and packaged for transport by specialist teams to be rebuilt – a massive task. Knowles adds that, if needed, teams will work 24 hours a day to maintain the deadline.

He explains: “It’s not just a case of selling the equipment or finding a home for it. It has got to be taken out – and with this sort of kit you are talking about five months for a complete line to come out, using a specialist team. And all the time we are conscious that we are running on a contract with a time limit to reduce this site eventually to slab level after all the reuse has been sorted.”

Knowles says this means that anyone it talks to has to meet the criteria of offering a viable price and being able “to take the equipment out within a certain time limit and being able to guarantee that”. He adds: “Because if they start over-running by a month or two, then we’ve got a major problem to clear the rest of the site. We can’t allow things to drag behind – that is where the pressure comes from on this job. We will have definite timelines to give to contractors and they will have to adhere to them.”

Under the contracts being negotiated, it will be up to the buyers to bring their own teams in to dismantle, log and move the equipment – and work 24/7 if needed. For the PM14 line, which was originally brought to the mill by barge, around 200 shipping containers are likely to be needed to transport all the structures and components, using specialist transport.

It will be worth the effort for buyers because the reuse price will be a fraction of what it would cost new. The PM14 line, used to make newsprint at Aylesford, can be modified to make testliner – the material that cardboard boxes are made from – which may be a more likely second life for the machine due to the decline in print and rise in digital media, which was the ultimate cause of Aylesford’s demise.

“The sad thing about all of this is that the quality of the kit here is just the best – it is what makes the equipment attractive to overseas buyers because they know the quality is good,” Knowles says. “We’ve had purchasers from all over the world – from the Nordic countries, China and Egypt.”

The sale has already been concluded of a number of the fabricated buildings, which will soon be disassembled then reassembled at new locations. There are 10 large fabricated effluent treatment chambers for which W&S is currently seeking a reuse option rather than having to demolish them.

It was W&S that proposed the focus on reuse. Knowles explains: “It would have been easy for us just to say we’ll take it all and scrap everything. But we are a recycling and reuse company and our focus, always, has been to recycle and reuse.”

Because many of the Aylesford buildings are clad in high-quality sheeting, W&S intends to remove them for reuse wherever possible. Knowles adds that even the block paving is worth salvaging for onward sale, at perhaps 5p a brick, compared with crushing it.

In early 2016, once the sale of reuse equipment has been completed, W&S will start the task of removing and stockpiling the site’s vast quantity of stainless steel. It is high-quality 316 grade material that was used extensively due to water in the paper-making process. As Knowles explains: “Nowadays a lot of equipment is made from nickel steel, to keep the price down. Here we’ve got 316, so people are interested worldwide because the quantities that are going to be available are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of tonnes.”

Numerous enquiries have been taken from major metals reprocessing plants around the world. Knowles says it is most likely that two metals recyclers will be appointed due to the volume of material and also the timescales in which it would have to be removed. As well as the stainless steel, there will be extensive quantities of other ferrous and non-ferrous materials and thousands of metres of copper cable.

Each building has its own high-quality overhead crane capable of lifting the heaviest components for service and repair and, once these have helped to take out the major machinery, they too will be seeking a new home. Everything on-site will clearly have to come out in a logical order, hence the focus on getting the big pieces out first before the buildings can start to come down, and using some of the warehouses to store materials before they are sold.

The dismantling of Aylesford is a mammoth task because of the size of the site and the volume of equipment and material that needs to be cleared. The project is both sad, in terms of eliminating what was once such an important UK manufacturer, and fascinating, because of the organisation and logistics that will be needed to get the job done in the timeframe.

As Knowles says: “We know there will be challenges but, hopefully, between us we should be able to overcome them.”

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