5 minutes with Tidy Planet’s Simon Webb

Simon Webb - managing director at Tidy Planet

Our MD, Simon Webb, was recently interviewed by Bio Market Insights about the story behind the Tidy Planet brand, his career and what’s coming up next for the company – plus much more. If you missed the original article, catch up below… 

What’s the story behind your brand?

Believe it or not, the first seeds of Tidy Planet – as we know it today – were sown back in the early 1990s. In fact, it all started by accident…

My dad – John Webb – had always been a keen gardener and inventor and was keen to find a way he could speed up the process of turning garden waste from his smallholding, into compost. Together, we pooled our knowledge of gardening and industrial waste processing – acquired from one of my previous jobs – to develop a machine that could do just this. The invention was designed to treat garden waste and horse manure, and convert it into a nutritious compost resource in just 14 days – a great result for an enthusiastic horticulturalist.

After the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, we worked closely with DEFRA to continue to streamline the technology and make it fully compliant with the Animal By-Products Regulations. This was so it would be safe to treat other organic wastes – including food.

Today, that equipment is known globally as the Rocket Composter.

Of course, this then sparked a flurry of ideas as to how we could use this machinery to turn typical organic waste problems into solutions. I soon recognised that it could play a key role in solving the rising costs of commercial food waste disposal – allowing organisations to treat their wastes on site to generate a resource.

What were you doing before you started this career?

Well, I studied automotive engineering, plus business and financial studies at university, as I’ve always been a bit of a problem solver. However after my years in education, I went on to work as a project engineer for a company which specialised in industrial pollution control systems – such as solvent recovery systems and thermal oxidisers.

Having spent a lot of time in the great outdoors with my dad, I’d always been interested in everything to do with environment and sustainability, so that job was perfect for me at the time, and really governed where I am today.

What’s been the biggest challenge in growing the company?

As any business owner will undoubtedly tell you, there have been too many to mention – or indeed remember – but for the main part, it has to be the fact we’ve always been ahead of our time.

It’s well known that no customer likes being the first to invest in a new solution, yet everyone wants to be second once its success has been proven – and this perfectly encapsulates the challenge we faced as a young company in this ever-competitive market.

At the time, our ideas and concepts were premature for the waste and recycling industry – not only in the UK but globally too. It was really difficult trying to convince people to change from the status quo and take a leap out of their comfort zone – to do something more environmentally positive, and above all, different.

People get set in their ways, and when it came to waste management and disposal, it was the more comfortable and familiar option to stick with ‘the way it’s always been done’, than to be a trailblazer. And these were the barriers we had to try and break down with our futuristic views.

Admittedly, it’s less of a challenge now – thanks to the surge in government policies and ongoing TV programmes about the issue – but that’s because recycling has become more ‘popular.’ And given awareness around the topic has grown drastically, people are more willing to consider alternatives to the traditional ‘throwaway’ mindset.

What’s coming up next for your company?

We will always remain experts in food waste disposal solutions, but this market is becoming very saturated in the UK – that and the single-use plastic debate has sparked an appetite for more WtE-led solutions. Therefore, Tidy Planet will really be focusing on Energy-from-Waste, RDF and the removal of contamination in AD digestate over the coming years, because it’s a logical progression from dealing with organic wastes.

Our Waste-to-Energy facilities at DHL’s sites for British Airways and Gatwick Airport have given us 10 years’ experience dealing with contaminated food wastes and packaging. And this is very similar to waste found in RDF and SRF.

Also, now that China has closed the door on accepting plastic waste imports – and other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia are also restricting this – it’s going to become progressively harder for Europe to dispose of this ‘troublesome’ waste stream. That’s why there’s never been a better time to implement local and regionalised solutions.

But, we’re not talking about implementing change on a municipal scale, rather more of a localised and regional approach. Currently, local waste collectors take commercial and industrial wastes and bulk up the RDF material for someone else to process. To me, this has always begged the question: why are we sending renewable – and valuable – fuel to other countries?

At Tidy Planet, we would prefer to see industrial wastes dealt with in a decentralised way, so that energy can be generated and used in local communities – making waste more widely accepted for its resource potential and less of a shunned concept.

What advice would you give to someone else looking to launch their own company/product in this space?

There’s a trio of sayings I’ve sworn by through my years in the industry and they are, have patience, stick to your principles and don’t give up.

If you believe you’re right – and you have a great product – persistent setbacks can be demotivating, but stick with it. The sooner you accept that it takes longer than expected for people to welcome a new idea or dare to be a pioneer, the less discouraged you’ll feel.

What’s your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?

There are so many available now, but for me the best recent innovation has to be the paper straw.

This small paper tube is having a mighty positive impact in dealing with such a problematic area of plastic waste. Because they are so light and flimsy, it’s the one area people either forget about or simply ignore – but it’s important to remember that it’s also the one that’s most easily blown into the sea and contaminating our planet.

And, this is testament to the fact that, when it comes to looking after our environment, it’s often the smallest things make the biggest impact – a philosophy at the core of Tidy Planet’s values.

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