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104 Richard Burnett – transcript

Circular Economy Podcast - 104 Richard Burnett – Diversity and packaging innovation

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Interview Transcript

Provided by AI – add ~ 1 min for the finished episode

Catherine Weetman  01:47

First of all, could you tell us a bit about James Cropper and what it does?

Richard Burnett  01:54

Okay, so um, so I work for James Cropper. We are a speciality paper manufacturer and advanced materials group. So, we’ve been around since 1845, as you mentioned, on the west side of the Pennines just outside of Kendal, close to Windermere at the end of the edge of the Lake District National Park. And we’ve been producing speciality paper and advanced nonwoven products for most of that time. We’ve the site where we are, has been here since that time in 1845. But there has been industry here since well, before that, and originally, it was a site that was used for dyeing wool, and then eventually moved through to manufacturing paper. And over the years, what we’ve done is we’ve developed niche markets to produce high quality, relatively low volume products in the markets that we work within. So it’s from a paper making perspective, we’re relatively small, relatively boutique, but we add value in terms of the way that we manufacture and the the manner in which we can produce bespoke products.

Catherine Weetman  03:10

And for those who are not in the packaging industry, perhaps you could tell us what on earth nonwoven products are,

Richard Burnett  03:16

was so, so nonwovens our technical fibre products business was born out of the paper business and essentially, the nonwoven business is around producing paper-like substrates from non cellulosic fibres. So essentially, instead of using wood fibre that’s been pulped, we’ll we’ll use carbon fibre, aramid, so glass fibre, to produce veils, which are then used as constituent parts in a number of different market areas, whether that’s from fuselage for the latest aerospace technology through to wind turbines, satellites, so huge array of areas where small amounts of our products are used. And particularly in the recent past, we’ve seen a significant growth within the market for hydrogen fuel cells. So essentially a paper made from something other than wood that has a huge amount of functional properties that can be used. So that’s been a really big growth area for us. The business itself started around 35 years ago, and we’ve seen rapid growth in this in this last 10 years, and it will continue to see growth in the future.

Catherine Weetman  04:31

Hmm, wow, that sounds amazing. I had no idea. James Cropper, were doing that kind of thing. And when you when you talked about a few of those materials and mentioned glass, I was thinking perhaps it’s similar technology to making paper from stone, which was one of the first kind of left field things I read about in circular economy terms, I don’t know eight to 10 years ago, because it you know, apparently can be recycled for much longer than than Woodfibre

Richard Burnett  05:00

It could be Yeah, it’s it’s, stone, is not an area I’m particularly familiar with, but certainly does. There’s a huge amount of applications for this kind of fibre. And its versatility and kind of understanding what we can bring in terms of technical development within partnership with customers is absolutely key for us.

Catherine Weetman  05:24

Yeah, sounds like there’s a wide range of things to potentially get into there. So thinking about the circular economy aspects of the packaging, what kind of things have you done so far?

Richard Burnett  05:35

Okay, so I’m so moving away from the nonwoven kind of area in terms of our paper business and our Colourform business. We developed technology around about 10 years ago, to recycle laminated paper materials. So essentially paper laminated to polyethylene substrates. And we did that at the time because we recognise  that those materials were deemed as being too difficult to recycle at the time. So essentially, there was a whole significant volume of material that wasn’t being recycled that we saw value in so we developed a technique to essentially separate the laminates. So we did that. And we concentrated on bringing in essentially waste from converters who make packaging. So we would take that waste, and then eventually, we move that through into working together with a number of brands to bring in used coffee cups that we would recycle in our process. And then we would put them, that fibre, into our products. So that fibre has ended up in any number of products from greeting cards for Hallmark to boxes for packaging for, for Burberry, for Lush, so there’s a huge number of different areas where that particular fibre source has been used. So we were really one of the trailblazers in that area. And there’s, there’s more to come in the near future with it. And then secondly, one of the big areas we’ve been working in is developing our moulded fibre business which is called Colourform. And with that business, we produce moulded pulp packaging, that is bespoke for particular customers. And essentially, it’s a it’s a mono material. And when we first started, we were kind of using it was mainly being used for inserts for packaging for various different things to to replace plastics that would be used on the inside of gift boxes, let’s say offer for different FMCG kind of goods. But what we’ve seen over time is that the demand has kind of shifted towards using the moulded pulp packaging to be that, the outer, the complete packaging product. So then really, you could be removing the volume of primary packaging, and potentially secondary packaging as well. So it’s just reducing the amount that’s that’s needed. So we’ve we’ve done a lot of work within the cosmetics, and also the champagne space we’ve been working in recent, in recent times. So yeah, so those are some of the kind of areas that we’ve been working on.

Catherine Weetman  08:33

So just to get clear on that, then, not only are you replacing potentially multilayer laminated material, that’s really difficult to recycle with a mono material, that’s much easier. But also because of the properties of that moulded packaging, you’re then able to help the your client remove additional layers of secondary or I guess potentially even white, you know, combining primary and secondary packaging and just leaving, you know, maybe maybe their transit packaging. So multiple advantages from that then in terms of resource efficiency, and the potential for recycling.

Richard Burnett  09:15

Absolutely, there is.  And you know what, the way that the business is going we we have we’ve really developed the in terms of it being a mono material, but in terms of what’s achievable from production. Making sure that product can fold and it can it can close so that we have clasps that close the product so there’s nothing else needed. There’s no kind of kind of attachment required other than the material itself. So these things mean that it you know that that fibre then can go directly back into the paper recycling stream, so it can be fully recycled. So it’s, yeah, it’s a real step forward in terms of the moulded packaging.

Catherine Weetman  10:00

Yeah, that sounds like a game changer in terms of the reducing the complexities. I was talking just the other day about laundry liquid, and my, my pet hate of the funny shaped bottles. And then you know, with a hole in the middle for some other kind of material that’s that’s got a dispenser in it, like, you know, why would you need a dispenser with every bottle but just all the kind of the waste and the complexity of it is, it’s just so frustrating. So that’s clearly one of the challenges and trends is to move away from these laminated materials and the need for multiple materials to do different things in packaging. What other kinds of challenges are facing the packaging industry at the moment?

Richard Burnett  10:53

Okay, so So one thing we see, I guess from from our standpoint, so we’re as a so as so as a manufacturer of materials that goes into packaging, but also as a recycler of packaging materials, there are kind of, there are a few challenges around at the moment in the kind of immediate term that are becoming apparent to us. So one of one of those is so on the recycling side of our business, we, as I mentioned before, have developed a technique to separate laminated materials. And now what we’re seeing is, is that because of the drive to use non fossil based materials to the development of new kinds of barrier coatings. And we’re seeing a situation whereby we’re moving from a market where, so if you consider the climate, the whole ecosystem of the material in the in, in the market, in Europe, where, whereby you have a kind of, you have a material that’s difficult to recycle, but it’s one type of material. So you have a paper and that would have polyethylene. Now what we’re starting to see is that through the development of new types of coatings, there are multiple types of new coatings come into the market. And some of these are behave different, essentially, they behave differently to one another. So they all behave in the same way. So if you look at it from a recyclers perspective, we’re moving from a situation where you have one type of material that you need to, there’s a challenge to recycle, but you can. You can manage it to a situation where there are multiple kinds of materials out there. And we don’t necessarily know which one might kind of stay, at the end of the day, on which will become the dominant material in the market in the future. So it becomes very difficult, then to understand how you’re going to develop your process to be able to manage it. So that’s one of the one of the big challenges that we have at the moment. And then I guess kind of more on the the packaging manufacturing side. So when we make a product, we will supply it into a reel or a sheet and then it would go to a converter to be made into a bag or a box or whatever else it may be. And, and what we’ve done recently is that we’ve we’ve launched a scheme called FibreBlend, which is about how we bring our different fibres together to make the products that our customers require. And one of the reasons for this is that there is a there’s kind of, always a, this sort of challenge between virgin fibre and recycled fibre in which is seen as more more valid, which is, which is better for one of a better world. And the answer for us is that they’re both they both have their valid points. And they both have drawbacks. So for us, it’s about communicating how we can bring those fibres together as best possible to reach what’s needed for a customer. And so what we’ve seen in the recent past is there is a real drive in the market for post consumer recycled materials. And and they’re not always the best answer in terms of the quality that may be achieved from a product. So it’s about that balance between using virgin materials and using recycled materials. Obviously, the material that we make is all recyclable in itself. So will go back into the the kind of the paper loop. But yeah, we need to consider what the best option is in terms of in terms of fibre, that at the moment is very much moving towards recycled, but we need to make sure there is enough good recycled fibre in the market for us to use. So that’s the that’s the challenge.

Catherine Weetman  14:54

And I guess for people that again, who might not be familiar with the challenges of packaging It sounds as if it should be really easy to just make everything from recycled content. But of course, some things need to be particularly strong and you know, subject to lots of abuse for want of a better word through the supply chain and, you know, between the original distribution centre and finally get into, like getting them to the point of views. So, you know, in that way, it’s not as easy as it as it seems, is it?

Richard Burnett  15:28

No, it’s not. And I guess, you know, paper and, and board is a real success story in terms of recycling in Europe. So I think the latest numbers are about 71% of, of paper and fibre is recycled, which is not all, so there’s still a long way to go. It’s, it’s one of the more proven kind of scaled markets out there. The challenge is, is that in terms of paper fibre, as you mentioned, they’re kind of at the top of the podcast. As you recycle over time, the the quality of the fibre degrades the more it’s recycled. So you always need to have new fibre coming into the system to make sure that the the quality is maintained. And that’s essentially what we’re doing. We’re kind of at the kind of the top end of the supply chain that will put that virgin fibre in that will then, you know, would be recycled into a newspaper that then might be recycled into a corrugated box into a cardboard tube and again and again and again. So be recycled to around about 20 times. Wow. So So yeah, so it’s, by the time it leaves us, it’s not the end of the story by any stretch. But there’s, there’s still that requirement for Virgin fibre to come in. Yeah. And you know that that’s a long term challenge for the, for the whole of the industry, really, and that needs to be understood. So one thing that we’re seeing, and kind of moving outside of our kind of direct realm of influence, but the decline in the use of graphic papers, so newspapers, magazines, causes challenges in the supply chain for corrugated materials, let’s say. So, there is less fibre around now than there was maybe 1015 years ago.

Catherine Weetman  17:26

As things have moved online, and I guess as, I’ve seen a few of the publications I get, that have kind of, you know, downgraded the paper quality. The, the Guardian recipe, pull out every week was one, one recent one where it’s suddenly, you know, the papers now, really thin. And, you know, which is probably a good thing, because I’m guessing most people don’t keep the whole thing. Yeah. But yeah, it was, it was quite noticeable. So I guess there’s a cost pressure to that. But there’s also, you know, the, I’m guessing, the more recycled content, you’re able to use the lower the, the kind of feel and quality of the of the end result.

Richard Burnett  18:10

It can be Yeah, I mean, I guess the, as you recycled more, the paper becomes denser, essentially. Right. So So you will see, you will start to see a difference, the more it’s recycled, but it’s particularly around strength, that that’s a challenge. So your, your supplement may not fold as well, or it may not, it may not behave in completely the same manner. So it may be if you think of the printing presses that produce 10s of 1000s of recipe books per hour, then that really affects the performance. So it’s those kinds of considerations they’ve got to be made. And obviously, there’s a cost point on that as well. So yeah,

Catherine Weetman  18:48

yeah, interesting. Yeah. Because I guess there’s all the all the work getting into it, but I’m just imagining all the implications of the, you know, if it gets ripped in the machine, then you’ve lost, you know, production time and all the rest of it.

Richard Burnett  18:59

Exactly. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Have an impact. Yeah,

Catherine Weetman  19:02

we’re more complicated. So what about other types of packaging material? When we were talking ahead of the podcast, we were discussing something you were doing with waste. Textiles.

Richard Burnett  19:17

Yes. So we’ve been working over the last 12 – 14 months on a product that uses recycled cotton as the primary raw material. The grade is called Rydal Apparel, and it’s it’s intended for for use in packaging market. And essentially we’re working with a company based in Sweden called Renewcell, and they have developed a process to take and post consumer used cotton. So as a for instance denim and then they can process that and produce a pulp that, that we can use to produce paper.  Or can go to be used to manufacture as dissolving pulp to manufacture viscose. So, so it’s the first kind of really significant scale production facility producing this kind of material. So it’s quite interesting to see the progress they’ve made, and that they kind of, you know, how, how big that plant is. And I think they’ve already announced that they’re going to double the size of the process in as soon as they can. So they’re moving from around about 60,000 tonnes a year to about 120,000 tonnes a year. So it’s a really significant investment. And for us, it’s a good indicator, to start to understand the kind of demand that we might get for non kind of non wood fibres. And also to kind of start to see how that affects our process, what sort of value there is in in that kind of, in that kind of fibre. Because obviously, the world is changing. And we need to consider sources of fibre other than kind of traditional wood pulp that we might use that we normally buy in from, from Scandinavia. So it’s kind of a bit of a toe in the water to understand how it might look for us. And so far, the response has been fantastic. We’ve had some, some really great inquiries, and it’s given us some nice attention. But yeah, it’s it’s understanding what that might mean for us in the future, in terms of in terms of growth and doing things a bit differently.

Catherine Weetman  21:50

Yeah, I guess there are all sorts of different unforeseen consequences that could come up from that, in terms of, you know, what’s going to happen to the textile industry will that will the textile industry suddenly up its game from the recycling being probably less than 1%, worldwide, of, of textiles, going back into textile uses? You know, it’s, it’s hardly likely to happen overnight, is it? But if they really got their act together and started doing that, then I guess, you know, that could be one consequence. But I think I think we’re probably not in that we’re not, you wouldn’t need to worry about that in the next five years or so. In terms of the recyclability of that, so once you’ve made it into packaging, is it then recyclable along with other packaging? Or does it need to go into a different stream

Richard Burnett  22:39

It is recyclable in the paper stream, so it can go back into the kind of standard household collections. So from that perspective, is not an issue. And the only thing I would say on your point around the the fashion industry kind of it works in a number of different ways. So So you may have, like you say, if the fashion industry kind of gets its act together and supply chains are built, it may, it may mean that there are kind of opportunities for someone like us dries up. But also, equally, there could be big opportunity for someone like us as a as a as a user of fibre. And the kind of the, the Holy Grail, I guess, is textiles or textile recycling, with no loss of quality with no loss of the functional properties. Whether that is entirely likely, is another thing. So maybe in time it is but you know, we don’t know yet. So for us, it’s an interesting area to kind of follow. And, and keep involved with. And this, as I said, it’s just a it’s kind of a starting point. The other thing is, in terms of the fashion industry, we’re starting to see more of a trend towards the use of viscose and other materials. And we may see in the future more of a strain on the the wood that we are the pulp that we use, because it may go to other other uses in the future. And we’re looking maybe a long way out, but those are the kinds of considerations that we need to have. So there may be more competition for that same supply. So yeah, there’s, there’s multiple things we need to think about.

Catherine Weetman  24:25

Yeah, everything gets more complicated, doesn’t it? The more the more we try to improve things, the more different considerations. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. And is there anything else you want to say, Richard, in terms of the sustainability, purpose and focus of James Cropper?

Richard Burnett  24:45

Well, I would say that, you know, the recycling within the business and producing sustainable materials has always been key. And I think we’re seeing kind of the next stage of that producing materials that go towards the manufacturer of green energy. So particularly the space of hydrogen fuel cells, kind of, and and also for, you know, kind of wind turbines and associated technologies. That’s a real area that we have expertise. And we see we see growing in future years. So I think that’s a, that’s key for us. And we will continue with the work that we do in terms of our sustainable packaging material. And, yeah, we expect growth in that area as well, just one thing to mention is that, you know, as we kind of adjust over time, we, you know, we we come up with, we find new opportunities on a regular basis. And one instance was that there is a manufacturer, not very far away from us. And we’ve just entered a deal with them, whereby we take wastes that they don’t need, and we put it into our process. And it’s those kinds of things that when you’re talking to people, when you when you’re open to discussions, and trying things that be a bit different, can give you quite a lot of opportunities. And we’re keen to do that.

Catherine Weetman  26:14

Yeah, we’ll look forward to what happens next on that, then because over the years, James Cropper has been, you know, it’s really pushed forward in a number of areas, not just around the packaging, but on employee well being and supply chain, and lots more. So given how long you’ve been focusing on these kinds of circular improvements, and so on, what have you struggled with? And what surprised you in the journey so far,

Richard Burnett  26:42

I guess, in terms of what we struggled with is, is that when, by its nature in a kind of a circular project or programme, and there are multiple stakeholders, and what you may find, and what we found was that at first, we thought, wow, okay, we’ve got we’ve got solutions here, we can offer a solution to solve everyone’s problem with what to do with, with coffee cups. But if you’ve already found like minded companies, who are also willing to do the same, and to help in different areas of the supply chain it works, but if there’s one company that are, a sort of organisation, that is unable to help at that particular time, it can just slow everything down. So it kind of everyone being on board at the same time, it’s difficult. And you know, that’s where the struggle can come and it moves a little bit slower than you might anticipate. So yeah, that would be that will be one for me.

Catherine Weetman  27:44

Yeah, that’s really interesting. And, yeah, I’ve got a side interest in kind of collaborations, but I won’t go down that cul de sac right now could be can be there for ages. So in terms of when you know, when you’re talking to other businesses that want to go circular, or start something circular, what’s the number one lesson learned that you generally share with them.

Richard Burnett  28:09

And so from our perspective, when we start talking to people, I guess, that everyone has really great ambitions, really brilliant ambitions. And to engage with different people and projects we have over the years has been fantastic. What what we found and start to learn pretty rapidly is that things are never quite as big as you think they’re going to be at first. So it’s and and to recognise that and to be comfortable with it is key, because it can be seen a little bit disappointing if it doesn’t all take off straight away. And it. So to be so when we’ve started working with companies on cup, so they wanted to send us new materials to be recycled. And they come to us and say, Well, you know, we’ve got, we think we have hundreds of tonnes of this material. And we’ve kind of iron almost not dampened expectations, but try and be more realistic about it. And, and we’ll say, Look, we will take less than that, we will try a small amount of what you can give, to assess what’s possible. So then we can start things moving. And it’s about having a level of flexibility at first when things start because generally, as you start trialling and doing things a bit differently, are collecting a new type of material for the first time doesn’t really work to plan and you’ve kind of got to be willing to kind of be realistic in terms of your kind of expectations, but also be willing to adapt what you’re what you’re trying. And that’s the best way to make things work.

Catherine Weetman  29:46

That sounds like really, really good advice in all sorts of areas. Next kind of, you know, at the strategy level, it’s all about building your minimum viable products. And remember OLIO the people who develop the food app They started off with a little Whatsapp group in their local area to see whether people would actually exchange food with other households. Yeah. And that was, you know, that was the kind of key thing that they thought they needed to prove before they spent any money on a on an app.

Richard Burnett  30:15

Yes, yeah. So yeah, definitely, there’s one of the things I would mention as well is, and I guess it’s more in terms of how how you may sort of present yourself to your customers and stakeholders is there has to be a level of, there has to be honesty in terms of what you’re doing. And two, so to use an example, when, when we first started with our CupCycling scheme, we knew that we didn’t have a huge amount of volume, because the whole kind of supply chain had just started up. So we, we started with a limited number of projects. And at first, it seemed that we were kind of there may have been a slight impression that we were sort of holding back a little bit, but it was because we didn’t have that volume. And then to explain to us sort of customers to say, well, actually, you know, we can we can work with you next, but we need to make sure that we have that product in place. And then when we’re making it, you can come and see it. So you can come in to see exactly what we’re doing. And, and that really helped in terms of an almost it kind of worked out that then we had a material that was quite exclusive, because there wasn’t that much fit, which created a demand in itself. But the that level of that level of honesty, in terms of how you go about doing things is really important, because it’s quite easy, I think to kind of make a claim that’s sort of mostly true, but then you you will only get caught out and get caught out in the end. And to be to be straight about things is much, much better. Yeah.

Catherine Weetman  31:55

And there was a recent, a recent one, a big international chemical manufacturer had said it was recycling, finding shoes or something like that sneakers into rubber for playgrounds. But Reuters went off to investigate and you know, did the thing of tracking things through through the supply chain. And none of it went into the into the supposed system. They just said, you know, we’re starting small. And you know, we’re only going to be doing a tiny bit and scale it out from there, then that would have been fine, wouldn’t it but they would, you know, did the big PR and yeah,

Richard Burnett  32:33

Yes, exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Catherine Weetman  32:37

So Richard is a someone you’d recommend as a future guest for the podcast.

Richard Burnett  32:41

So I worked out a lot over the last few years, and he’s since moved to new to a new business, a chap called Oliver Rosevear, who is I think, the sustainability director at Fuller’s brewery. So he has always been a really good advocate for the both of the work that we did, but the work we did together. He was always very keen to work together with, with other businesses and organisations. And he had a level of energy for making new things happen that always encouraged me. And I think, yeah, I think he would be a good person to get on. As I say, he’s kind of moved into a new area. But I think, yeah, he’d be very interesting for you to talk to

Catherine Weetman  33:29

thank you. I’ll look him up. And moving outside the business if you want to, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing to help create a better world? What would that be?

Richard Burnett  33:40

Oh, so I sat there this morning thinking, what am I going to say to this? There’s all sorts of things. I think, think for me, it’s. And I kind of thought, Well, I think close to the business. And one of the things was the what you just mentioned about kind of unsubstantiated claims, which drives me crackers sometimes. But I think, for me that one of the things to change. The world is the short termism that we see in politics. Just on a four or five year cycle, it really concerns me because what goes through in the budget just yesterday, could change with a with a change in power of the elections. And it we’re not looking long term enough. And I think that’s that’s a real concern for me. So yeah, if that if I could have a magic wand, that’s what I would do. I would make everyone take a longer term approach.

Catherine Weetman  34:36

Excellent. Thank you. And Richard, how can people find out more and get in touch with you and James Cropper PLC?

Richard Burnett  34:42

Okay, so So our website is James And I’m on LinkedIn. So you’d find me on there, Richard Burnett. I’ll be happy to talk to anyone. I mean, you know, we’ve got a lot of exciting things going on here and happy to share What we do, and always interested to talk to new people, so yeah,

Catherine Weetman  35:05

great, thank you. And I’ll put the links in the show notes so people can look you up. And is there anything else you’d like to add? So that we can so that, you know, we’ve covered all the bases?

Richard Burnett  35:13

I don’t think so. No, I just really appreciate being asked on the podcast and getting to spread my thoughts and our perspective. So no, I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Catherine Weetman  35:22

Thanks, Richard. And thanks so much for taking the time to share all of those lessons learned. Think there’s so much focus on packaging in terms of sustainability in the circular economy. And I know lots of people will benefit from the the insights that you’ve shared. So thank you very much.

Richard Burnett  35:37

Thanks very much. Thank you.

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