Today I visited Nick Stillwell at the Protomax plastic engineering works, near my old school in Vallis, Frome. This is where they “upcycle” mixed plastic waste into a recycled board material with a huge range of uses. The work they do at Vallis is mainly R&D and some small scale production. Their unique process is licensed to other factories, currently in Poland and Belgium, who produce on a larger scale.
I’d already seen their product without knowing it in the refurbished bar and foyer of the Cheese and Grain venue in Frome. I was blown away to be shown how all that household waste I really hate – the food packaging and little bits of foil which are usually posted to a landfill hole – can be usefully salvaged and re-used for everything from designer furniture, through construction, to anti-ballistic use in minefield clearance. And plants like these, if built next to waste sites, could potentially even be powered by methane gas that the waste produces.
Plastic pollution in the world has now reached epic proportions, covering our oceans, choking up our sea-beds, poisoning our land and waterways. There is a “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the ocean twice the size of Texas, and I’m as responsible for it as anybody. Meanwhile, the demand for plywood board – often used once, then thrown away – is a major reason we are losing the planet’s rainforest at such a scary rate. Technology like Nicks makes it possible to imagine ‘closing the circle’ of production, having zero-waste and zero deforestation, and then maybe clearing up the mess we’ve already left.
I could see that Nick is someone who is always thinking up new possibilities and looking for new challenges. The Protomax team are a stunning example of how a small local business can also be a world leader in green technology. But I also learned more about the kind of obstacles that technology pioneers like Nick still face – and what we will need to do if we want to bring their urgently needed solutions forward.
The obvious issue is finance and investments, and we all know that the banks, which were bailed out with our money, are still making it hard for our small businesses to borrow. The Green party want to see a Green National Investment Bank to fund the move to a green economy via targeted investment. Our innovators also need support and encouragement through serious match-funding, green tax-breaks and the like, all of which Nick’s licencees in other parts of Europe have been able to access. But this is the kind of support which our current UK government seems unwilling to give, reserving its special subsidies and tax-breaks for mega-projects like Hinkley C, or the benefit of their Fracking friends.
Nick also felt that Europe’s more rational, consistent and realistic approach to health and safety was a major advantage for small concerns, while the cost in time and money of employing new young workers in Britain is made prohibitive by seemingly bottomless risk-assessment. As a former union Health and Safety rep whose father lost his fingers in an industrial accident, I was quite surprised to hear this perspective, which goes against the tabloid-fostered belief that Britain’s Health and Safety regime is dictated by Brussels. It will be interesting to find out what other local businesses have to say about this, and whether people representing workers safety agree.
Coupling these observations with his sense that engineering and manufacturing skills are no longer actively fostered in our post-Thatcher world, and that young people are given better vocational status, training and apprenticeship support across the channel, I found nothing in my visit to suggest that small business and technology innovators would be better off if Britain “left Europe”. On the contrary, it re-inforced my belief that as regards fostering future green technology, our EU cousins are well-ahead of the UK government, and we need a big shift in politics and culture to liberate the huge creative potential of our people. It is the biggest irony, and one which Nick Stillwell regrets, that while the biggest market for protomax board is in the uk, he has found it easier to get it produced in Europe and then shipped back!