'I don't know where the fifty years have gone' - recycling firm Bolton Brothers looks back at half a century in business
PUBLISHED: 07:00 19 June 2019
Ipswich's company's journey from a one-man business to £10m turnover.
Back in 1969 when Michael Bolton set out to work for himself, the word recycling wasn't in common use.
At that time he dealt in 'scrap' or 'waste' but the principle remained the same - to find a use or a market for products others had discarded. As the 1970s approached the young air compressor technician turned his back on his trade, realising there was money to be made from what others threw away.
Fast forward half a century and today Bolton Brothers is a well-known name in Suffolk and the wider East Anglian region. The company runs operations from a nine-acre site in Great Blakenham, employs 50 staff, deals with a global network of customers and turns over in excess of £10m - it's clear Michael's hunch 50 years ago has been proved to be correct.
Back then things were less automated and much of the work carried out at their first premises on Ranelagh Road in Ipswich was done by hand. Michael tells me his damaged ankles and knees are testament to all the hard lifting carried out over the years. His wife, Winnie, who worked in the business for a long time, shows me her a disfigured index finger, a legacy of many years bundling and picking up bales of paper and card.
Their son Reuben, who today is commercial director, remembers how it was.
"We used to sort a lot by hand, sorting through printer's waste paper into different qualities," he said.
"I used to work in the school holidays, and they were good times. We all worked together and got on well. It's all a bit different today due to health and safety considerations but really, working in a family business like that is no different to working on a family farm."
Reuben left school to work in the family business at the age of 16 and has been at the firm for 30 years. But he'd been knocking around and helping out for many years before that. He tells me he passed his driving test only days after he turned 17, having gained lots of experience parking lorries and driving forklifts around the depot since the age of twelve.
When Michael first set the business up it dealt in scrap metal, rags, feathers, paper and plastics. It moved to the site of the old station in Claydon in 1979 before coming to its present location in the new Millennium. The company has traded under various names in the past before eventually becoming Bolton Brothers as Michael and Winnie's children joined the business. Alongside Reuben, there is Oliver who oversees operations at the recycling depot; Jodi who is involved in the HR and Finance side of the business while the youngest son Michael also worked for the business before recently leaving to set up on his own.
The family connections don't end there: Jodi's husband Jason looks after health and safety, while a grandson and several nephews also work in the business.
Today Michael acts as chairman and has an advisory role in the business, which now focuses on recycling paper, cardboard and different types of plastic.
"It works well, Reuben has ideas and passes them by me and I give an opinion and we go from there, " said Michael.
Walking around the site, I'm amazed at how quiet it is. There's a sense of steady progress being made as the plastic and paper is sorted. Everything has to be graded and bundled. Minimising contamination is important, as it packing things tightly so shipping costs are minimised. On the forecourt I see stacks of plastic milk bottles and flowerpot trays as high as houses. Inside, a giant bundle of processed paper waste emerges slowly from the baling machine, inching forward like a glacier made from old documents and magazine.
Upstairs, plastic is sorted into twelve different grades. Water bottles, perspex, window frames all come up a conveyor belt where people on a picking line take items and drop them down various chutes. It's clear they have a trained eye and know instinctively what type of plastic is coming their way.
All this waste is generally from commercial and retail customers, alongside semi-sorted paper and plastics delivered from recycling centres such as the Foxhall Road site in Ipswich.
When the company first started, the sorted waste was sold only within UK but the waste market of 2019 is a global affair.
Reuben tells me scrap paper and cardboard gets sold as a raw material to paper and card mills to be pulped, processed and turned into new paper and cardboard.
"There's been a massive reduction in paper mills in the UK and in Europe, many have closed, and the demand today is in the Far East," he said.
"There's a lot of products manufactured over there that need packaging around them. Then it comes here and we send it back again!"
"You have to travel to meet the customers, I've been to China many times and to India as well. They have been two of our biggest customers but now China is closing its doors, other markets are opening up, such as Indonesia, which seems to be the biggest market at the moment."
"A lot of the time we sell to middle men who do much of the sales process for us, so we can concentrate on getting material into our depot, getting it ready for packaging and baling up and shipping."
Rigid plastics such as flower pots, water butts and garden tables are sorted into grades and then ground into small parts ready to be melted down and made into pellets to be used for injection moulding, mainly going to companies in Europe.
Reuben makes a distinction between single use plastics and multi-use plastics, which have a long life and are recycled many times over. The same goes for different grades of paper: old notepad paper gets recycled into kitchen roll and toilet rolls and newspapers are turned back into newsprint again.
Reuben says the business continues to grow year on year.
"Apart from a couple of small businesses, we haven't acquired any," he said. "Most of the growth is organic through our name and the services we provide. Companies are recycling more as well - we've all become a lot more environmentally conscious and companies recycle more because it affects their credibility."
It's not unusual for Bolton Bros to processes up to 1000 tonnes of waste a week today - a far cry from the early days when the business would get through less than 20 tonnes a week, although most of this was loaded by hand.
For the future, the business is looking to develop a new facility so it can recycle and process more types of plastics and have the ability to turn the plastic into pellets themselves.
As most of the plastic goes to Europe, I feel compelled to ask Reuben about Brexit. He is philosophical. "I think once it's all done and dusted, we'll speak to our end users and sort it," he said. "If we have to jump through a few hoops, so be it, we'll have to work through it."
I ask Michael if he is proud of how the company has developed but he refuses to be nostalgic. Even after 50 years, it is clear he's not here to rest on his laurels.
"To be honest with you, I don't know where the fifty years has gone," he said.
"There's been a lot of hard work but I prefer not to look back and always want to be moving forwards - that's why I'm still here because I don't think I could manage doing nothing."