As with many entrepreneurial businesses, WRL Glass Media came from an opportunity that has gone from strength to strength, and now has the potential to overtake its sister business, Ward Recycling, in terms of revenue.
Its products are used for a range of applications including shot blasting and water filtration. The business’s fast growth highlights the benefits of creating complementary enterprises that can utilise recycled waste to reduce landfill and create wider uses for recycled materials.
The company’s journey into the market began after the introduction to an Irish company that was looking to open a glass beneficiation site in the UK to supplement its existing operations. Short of finance but knowledgeable about the industry, the company agreed to enter into a joint venture in which Ward Recycling would cover the costs of getting the facility up and running. But, due to complex legal issues, the partnership never took off.
Unable to produce high-quality product at the volumes required, the Irish company eventually entered administration. This left Ward with two options: either cut its losses and run, or take the plunge alone. ‘Plunge’ because, at the time, it knew almost nothing about the industry, had no information about the market or products and was without existing contacts.
Ward’s kerbside collection and processing business had been operating successfully for 10 years. But it was keen to diversify, so it bought the plant in Middlesbrough from the administrator, created WRL in 2012 and became an expert in all things glass media. This involved spending six months reconfiguring the plant to ensure maximum efficiency, six months putting in place procedures to create a cleaner product than before, and a further three months talking to users of glass media about issues they had with current suppliers.
Once the company was confident it had done everything to create the best product possible, the relevant quality accreditations were secured, including three ISO awards, PAS 102 and Regulation 31, which allows its media to be used for filtering drinking water for human consumption. This commitment to quality has been integral to the growth of WRL.
A surge in demand resulted in a shortage of clean glass. To address this, WRL invested in a MRF to operate alongside the glass plant. Previously, it collected product at kerbside as a subcontractor and the recyclate was transferred to third party sorting facilities. But WRL now buys the glass from Ward Recycling.
In the next 18 months, the glass operation is set to overtake the original recycling business, meaning a significant increase in its consumption. In an ideal world, it would use separately collected glass. But most goes to the re-melt industry, so WRL is reliant on sorting glass from dual-stream and commingled collections.
The company’s success in the UK market has transferred to a number of European countries. It received invaluable assistance from Redcar and Cleveland Council, which gave four days with a business consultant, who revealed the e802m (£585m) European market for glass products had much more potential than the UK’s £11m market.
Although WRL knew there was a large market for glass products, the data was not broken down into subsections to reveal what type of products were in demand. But its management had a gut feeling that, because of the warmer climate and higher concentration of swimming pools in Europe, there would be a requirement for high-quality glass filtration products.
The company’s more refined processed glass, used as a cost-effective and cleaner replacement to silica sand in pool filtration systems, is enjoying strong export growth. More than 30% of products are sold to customers in countries including Spain, Greece, Cyprus, France and Iceland.
The ability to meet this substantial growth in sales has been made possible by investment in its facilities in South Bank, Middlesbrough. The 32,000sq ft glass beneficiation plant, next to Ward Recycling’s main household recycling facility, is part of a £3.2m investment, supported by a £500,000 grant from Let’s Grow, a £30m regional growth fund.
To meet demand, the company has built an additional 5,000sq ft, £450,000 glass clean-up extension, opened by the then business secretary Vince Cable earlier this year.
The growth shows no sign of slowing, and the business has seen an 80% increase in total sales compared with last year. It thought initially that this would mainly be at the expense of competitors’ market share, but there has been substantial growth in the glass media market as a whole.
This can be attributed to fact that, in the 1990s, companies experimented with glass media and were encouraged by its potential, but the final product was highly contaminated – creating scepticism among potential customers over its quality. But with technological advances, contamination has been virtually eliminated and these customers are now returning, and more importantly, staying.
Gareth Godwin is manager at WRL Glass Media