SPECIAL REPORT: Beth Slow visits Recresco’s glass recycling facility in Cwmbran, South Wales and talks to Tim Gent about the company’s activities and the aim to increase the glass yield from mixed glass.
Recresco is one of the well-known names in the glass recycling sector, the business having been set up by director Tim Gent’s father, Alan Gent, in Norfolk in 1973, and expanding gradually from there.
Tim explains that the strength of the company was “a very good understanding of the technology,” gained by Tim Gent and his brother, taking apart their machines and rebuilding them.
And, Recresco was the first company to colour sort glass, and the first to take glass sourced from materials recycling facilities (MRFs), Mr Gent understands, at a time when it was going to landfill or aggregate.
Now it has two main facilities: a plant in Cwmbran, which takes source separated glass from councils, along with local waste businesses; and a much larger site at Ellesmere Port. The company’s head office is in Kirby-in-Ashfield, Nottingham.
At the Ellesmere Port facility the majority of glass is sourced from MRFs, and the end product sold on to bottle maker Encirc. “It’s a tough job cleaning MRF glass, even now it’s still really difficult, because the particles are so small,” explains Mr Gent.
Previously the company operated facilities at Swanscombe in Kent, and Southampton (which closed five years ago). The Swanscombe plant closed last year because the company couldn’t compete with the aggregates market. Mr Gent reveals he made an investment to deal with MRF glass at the facility, with the expectation that the government would put in place measures to favour glass going to remelt rather than aggregate.
“When we built Swanscombe it was because the government had just introduced the differential PRN system, so we thought there would be a target set that favoured remelt, and there isn’t, and there never was. I suppose there was intended to be one, but it never actually happened. The ability to compete for material from aggregate was never there, because the PRN was basically the same value, whether you crushed it all up and built a road with it, or whether you invested many millions in a plant to get it back into remelt.”
The Cwmbran facility opened around seven years ago, with capacity to process up to 100,000 tonnes of glass per year. The plant has a supply contract with Knauf Insulation – a company which manufactures glass mineral wool from the recovered material.
Knauf Insultation operates the Cwmbran Glass Mineral Plant which is just down the road from the Recresco site and Mr Gent feels that the logistics of partnership are very favourable, as vehicle movements are kept to a minimum.
Around 80% of the output from the Cwmbran facility goes to Knauf with the remaining flint and clear glass exported to bottle makers in Portugal through Newport docks. The facility takes in about 1,400-1,600 tonnes per week, according to Kevin Edwards, production manager at Cwmbran. Around half is from local authorities and half from waste management companies.
Mr Gent values the fact that the agreement keeps the majority of the company’s glass cullet in the country for he believes it’s important to have offtake agreements for glass within the UK, and use export just for the surplus.
At the Cwmbran site the contaminants are removed, and the glass is sorted using optical sorters. The final product is dried and crushed.
The contract with Knauf means Recresco has to meet a high quality standard cullet. Because of this, the company has made investment in technology at the Cwmbran site to target contamination, such as CSP – ceramics, stone and porcelain. And, Mr Gent remarks that he will pay “top dollar” for the good quality material.
Mr Gent reveals that borosilicate – a low melting material with the appearance of glass – could cause issues. “Heat resistant glass is increasingly difficult to detect and if that increases then we’ve got a problem.” But, he added: “The technology we’ve got it pretty good, it can remove all the contamination that we get.”
The past 12 months have been a tricky time for the glass industry, and also for Recresco, Mr Gent suggests. The PRN system has led to unpredictability over income, and earlier this month the company suffered a fire at its Ellesmere Port site.
“I would say the PRN system is probably detrimental, because no one is willing to sign a long-term contract without knowing what the PRN is going to do.”
Things are now back on track in Cheshire, with the site up and running, thanks to the help and cooperation of the fire service, Mr Gent says.
However, Mr Gent reveals that the PRN system is still causing problems. “I would say the PRN system is probably detrimental, because no one is willing to sign a long-term contract without knowing what the PRN is going to do,” he says.
And, referring to Brexit, he explains, there is “potential for problems with export going forward. That would be serious, not for us, but for anybody who has glass to sell, because we’ll just drop the price accordingly.”
He continues: “If you’re a local authority with recycling targets and you have to recycle it anyway and you don’t have a market place for it, then it all goes to aggregate, basically, if we can’t export it.”
Mr Gent explains that uncertainty is “a pretty big threat, but we’ve lived with that for some time now because we’ve always had uncertainty over PRN values and yet here we are.”
As a result, he reveals the company is only able to put in place plans for the short-term. “We tend to be going more and more short-term, very short-term right now.”
- Recresco's Cwmbran facility opened around seven years ago
- The facility takes in about 1,400-1,600 tonnes of glass per week
- Around half of the glass received at the facility comes from local authorities and half from waste management companies
- Contaminants such as CSP - ceramics, stone and porcelain - are removed from the glass
- The end product: glass fines ready to be sent to Knauf Insulation
- Flint glass cullet ready for export
Despite being critical of the PRN system, Mr Gent says the current system is “really good at getting money back to the local authority. When we buy a tonne of glass, we don’t value it at what we could sell it for, we value it at what we could sell it for plus the PRN value. Sometimes we have to guess that PRN value, and if we want to win it we guess the PRN value higher, and if we’re wrong we lose money.
“We have very cheap compliance in this country, and if you do anything to that it will become more expensive, less transparent, and the local authorities won’t get the money, so be careful what you ask for.”
Looking ahead, Mr Gent says the company’s focus will be improving the yield from the material it receives.
“We have room to grow a little bit better, a little bit more, and we’ll probably do that through more efficiencies, so we’re not desperate for more tonnage,” says Mr Gent. “Our future for the next couple of years will be in improving the yield from the tonnage that we already have.”