At the recycling coalface

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:
Simon Ellin, chief executive of The Recycling Association

The Recycling Association’s straight-talking boss Simon Ellin talks to Geraldine Faulkner about the organisation’s history and its work, and discusses the wider industry issue of quality in recyclates

Don’t expect Simon Ellin, chief executive of The Recycling Association (TRA), to prevaricate. It is not his style. When asked if it is confusing to have the Resource Association and the TRA, he gets straight to the point: “You are not the only one to find it confusing.”

This prompts him to look back to the TRA’s origins.

“We’ve been going since 1975 as the Independent Waste Paper Processors Association, which was in a different guise to the one we now find ourselves in,” he recalls. “The Association originally comprised disaffected paper merchants who wanted to pool their resources. In fact, the model was a very successful one and it grew pretty rapidly with lots of people wanting to join. Eventually, it became an organisation with political clout. Eight years ago, we realised we needed to rebrand as most of our members were dealing with general recycling badges. So while we are now known as The Recycling Association, we still run Independent Waste Paper Producers (IWPP), which comprises the trading co-operative which funds the TRA.”

The Association is unique in that it continues to be funded by the producers’ co-operative.

Ellin picks up the story again: “In 2011, Ray Georgeson came along with the Resource Association whose membership consists largely of the processors while we are more the producers. It means we have members who are mills and Ray has members who are processors so we dovetail nicely together. Essentially we all agree with 95% of everything that goes on,” he adds with a smile.

The chief executive emphasises that while the two organisations might disagree on minor details, when it comes to important issues such as quality, which is currently right at the top of the recycling agenda, they stand together.

“Whether you’re with the TRA or the Resource Association, the same principles apply and we have to work together. As the saying goes, it’s better inside the tent looking out, than outside the tent looking in.”

As matters stand, the TRA currently has 82 members, which include companies such as waste brokers.

“A lot of them have been there for the duration. Added to which, we’ve had a surge of membership in recent years.” Ellin pauses before going into chief executive mode and adds: “I feel it’s right to sing the Association’s praises; we don’t do it enough, especially when you consider what membership costs and what members get. They like the messages as we’re quite cutting edge. This reflects my and the board of directors’ personalities. Basically, if you are offering benefits to members, I believe you have to say it as it is.” Five minutes in the company of the refreshingly blunt chief executive and that comes as little surprise.

How long has he been with the TRA?

“I joined seven years ago, have been the head since 2009 and, in total, have been in the industry for 26 years. At university in Bradford I did a degree followed by a PhD and then went straight into the recycling industry. Frankly, I couldn’t be anywhere else. It’s the frustration that adds to the enjoyment of the job,” he says with a mischievous grin before admitting: “It’s the hat I wear as the CEO of a trading company that gives me the sleepless nights. It’s because we run a trading company in a commercial environment that I see all the barriers. This means we are at the coalface so we’re not recession- or regulatory-proof. That gives me credibility when I’m having my rants and lectures.”

Unsurprisingly, Ellin returns to a topic that is at the forefront of many waste management professionals’ minds: quality in recyclates.

“We’ve talked about quality for 20 years and it’s always been important, although sometimes I’ve had the feeling it’s been lip service rather than tangible evidence on the ground. Today, however, we can’t escape the issue and quality applies to all materials, especially since we operate in a global market. In the UK paper industry, we export 60% of what we produce so, like it or not, we are increasingly reliant on the export and Chinese market. When you look back to when China was hungry and wanted more and more tonnage, quality wasn’t high up on the agenda and they were buying ad hoc. However, since the green fence went up three to four years ago, China’s domestic market has grown; now they can supply their mills they have a choice where they buy the material from.”

Ever the optimistic realist, Ellin points to the fact that: “The Chinese like the UK, as we have an established market, a great port structure, quality and materials with fibre strength.” But he warns that: “If we are to remain players in the game, we absolutely need to be the Armani of Europe and the crème de la crème so that when the Chinese need to buy, they should automatically look to the UK market.”

The chief executive, who helped spearhead the TRA’s Quality First campaign, believes it helps to have the MRF code of practice, even the green fence because it has got producers talking about quality.

He cautions: “Companies can’t afford to produce sub-standard material, but we’re not there yet. All this ties in with the regulators by whom we are being increasingly scrutinised with ongoing court cases for alleged illegal shipments. In fact I would argue the regulators need to provide a lighter touch to otherwise compliant companies – such as our members – who may possibly produce material to the satisfaction of the environment agencies who in reality simply don’t know the rules.”

Ellin gives an example of diverse standards being applied in different countries: “Two of our directors independently visited the same mill in India and saw sub-standard materials being bought significantly below the market prices. It was knowingly supplied and bought. They are the criminals who need to be weeded out.”

When in belligerent mode, it must be reassuring for The Recycling Association members to know Ellin is there batting on their behalf. He smiles as the conversation veers back to the TRA: “I couldn’t envisage doing anything else and with the experience I have accumulated over the years, I firmly believe I can make a difference. I love my job.”

And, quite frankly, there’s not many people who can say that as convincingly as Ellin.

Five things Simon can't live without...

Family: my whole raison d’être

Friends: I am very fortunate to have a hard core of close friends who have been with me all my adult life

Scunthorpe United: I’m a Scunny lad born and bred and my team is my second raison d’être

My reading glasses: I went from 20/20 vision to virtual blindness overnight (actually it’s a gradual age thing that I try not to acknowledge)

My bike: I put myself through an epic ride every two years and have done Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh and North to South Vietnam in recent years. It forces me to train even when I can’t really be ..... bothered.

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