Bryson Recycling director Eric Randall: 'Waste connects to everybody'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Bryson Recycling director Eric Randall

Eric Randall has just blown out the candles on Bryson Recycling’s 25th birthday.

As director and original founder of the Northern Ireland recycling organisation and founding board member of the Resource Association, he has witnessed huge changes within the sector, including the country’s recycling rates rising from just 5% to 50%.

As a social enterprise, Bryson Recycling reinvests its profits back into the business and local community to tackle social problems. It began its first recycling project in 1993 with a Cash for Cans scheme, which encouraged residents to recycle aluminium drinks cans in exchange for money. This soon spread across Northern Ireland, with the scheme still successfully running today (and, of course, about to be rolled out in England and Scotland as a fully fledged Deposit Return Scheme).

Randall, who was awarded an MBE in 2006 for services to waste management, became a recycling officer back in 1992 as part of Bryson House Environmental Unit. He then set up a training programme called Action for Community Enterprise (ACE), which provided the groundwork for Cash for Cans and a series of other recycling initiatives such as Recycling Rewards.

“Waste is something that has this incredibly far-reaching impact around the world in so many different ways and it connects to everybody,” says Randall. “Back then [1993], there was a perception that recycling, particularly in Northern Ireland, was too far away from main markets, that materially it wasn’t going to happen in any big way. Recycling levels were low and not even properly measured.”

One step ahead

With the European Directive was on the horizon, Randall and the rest of the Bryson team started to do some research into how recycling could be delivered in Northern Ireland on a door-to-door basis.

They managed to get regional development funds from Europe to set up trials of 8,000 households which was used to find out what yields were likely per home, how to do rounds, how to bulk materials and what the markets were like.

Randall says: “Nobody else was doing it, so when it came to the tenders, quite a few of the councils used our model on which to develop a specification. We won one contract after another because we knew what to expect and nobody else did; we caught everyone else napping.”

This successful model has seen the organisation grow from a simple can DRS to collecting and processing materials from over 60% of homes in Northern Ireland, plus operating eight recycling centres in Donegal in Wales. Despite its regional scope, it is still focused on forging local links.

Randall adds: “The point of recycling sometimes gets lost in targets, so we’ve been very steady in our view that you have to collect recyclables in a way that can be recycled locally. If you’re looking at how to maximise the benefits of these resources that were previously thrown away, then one of the answers is that you seek to keep that resource locally and benefit from the economic value and the jobs that it brings in the area you’re in.

“Northern Ireland has changed and now it’s commonplace for collections to be done at the doorstep. There’s an inherent drive in people to instinctively feel it’s the right thing to do and feel really queasy about waste.”

The company has also developed its Wheelie recycling collection box to make it easier for householders to sort and separate their recycling. The boxes are now being used across 140,000 homes in the UK, have been adopted as the Welsh blueprint for recycling and are the preferred model within the Scottish Recycling Charter.

Times are a changin’

From the rise and fall of Britpop to the first publication of J K Rowling’s then-unknown novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bryson Recycling has witnessed many market trends. Most notably the crash of the Lehman Brothers bank in 2008, which held huge repercussions for the composition of recyclables out there.

Randall says: “Suddenly after the collapse you can track the reduction in newsprint, when companies stopped advertising in them and smartphones were coming in. We get almost half of what we used to in 2008.”

In the wake of Blue Planet IIand a growing public consciousness, the company has seen a rise in plastic recycling and is now collecting 800,000 plastic items on a daily basis. It also receives much more cardboard due to an increase in ecommerce popularity.

“It’s an interesting game and there is no magic thing to it. The bottom line is you really don’t know what’s going to happen and it’s especially hard when you have contracts which are seven to eight years long and you’re relying on commodity values.”

Yet despite the growing consciousness around plastics recycling meaning more feedstock, Randall still wants to push for a move away from plastics if they are used incorrectly.

“We’re better off with as little single-use material as possible. If that were to follow through, we’d see the demise of Bryson Recycling in its current form because there would be nothing to collect. We’re certainly not going to argue against or stand in the way of changes that result in better environmental outcomes.”

A focus on social good, rather than just profits, may seem a world away from the rat race of traditional business ventures. But with Bryson Recycling’s expansion and landmark birthday, it is proof that building a business model on a social or environmental problem can be a huge success.

Did Randall expect to be at the helm 25 years later? “I had no expectation it was going to grow into what it is today. I thought if we ended up running a kerbside contract to 50,000 houses in Belfast then I’d have been happy. The fact we’re taking recyclables from more households than anyone else probably would have scared me lifeless at that point.”

Plenty of challenges still lie ahead for the company, most notably the demands of Brexit, which Randall predicts will affect the organisation’s workforce and accessibility to the labour market. This, plus the incendiary topic of the Irish border, means many questions have been left unanswered, yet Randall is optimistic of the “huge opportunities” the next few years will bring.

After a series of company celebrations, Bryson Recycling is now focusing on its local circular economy concept, which aims to tie in all elements of the waste journey: from product designers to councils, recycling operators and reprocessors.

For Randall, the principle of integrity in business will be enough to meet the challenges of a changing market.


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