An innovative recycling project in Sheffield has allowed people with disabilities to rejoin the workforce. Mary Hampshire reports
Workers busily sort plastic bottles pouring on to two conveyor belts at Reclaim in Sheffield. Surrounded by towering multi-coloured bales, with squashed washing up liquid, ice cream, fizzy drink and pot noodle cartons, their shouts are drowned out by machinery and Radio 1.
Reclaim (Sheffield Reclamation Ltd) is one of the largest plastics recycling plants in Britain and claims to be the first. It recycles 1,000 tonnes of domestic and industrial waste a year from 14 local authorities in South Yorkshire, Humberside, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire. A non-profit organisation, it began as a pilot project in 1989 in a shed with 17 volunteers and three salaried staff.
Now it employs 25 full-time paid staff, six with learning disabilities. And 30 disabled volunteers work full and part-time at its 40,000 sq ft factory.
They live at home or in care. They train on the job and receive a basic NVQ equivalent certificate. Modules cover baling plastics, identifying plastics, assertiveness and teamworking.
Tasks include acompanying a driver to collect plastics, and sorting bottles off a conveyor belt and into crates.
"Disabled people want the same things from life as the rest of us: being valued, making a contribution to society and gaining respect," says Mark Powell, Reclaim's chief executive.
"But often the world of work eludes them. I wanted to harness their practical ability and emotional strength in employment to help them achieve fulfilled lives."
Andrew Brady, 36, has been with Reclaim for nine years. "When I first started the job, I was scared. I was shy and didn't think I'd get the job," he says.
"Now I show the others what to do. I really enjoy it because I'm the best worker and make the place tidy."
Powell, who has a background in social and charity work, was recommended to the British Plastics Federation (BPF), which funded the original Sheffield Reclamation Centre to help meet EU-set recycling targets.
Sheffield, says Powell, was chosen to set a nationa example. "I was given bin men by the local authority to collect plastics. But I knocked on the doors of social services and parents and carers offering an opportunity for disabled people to join the workforce."
In 1992, when BPF funding - amounting to approximately pound;0.5million over the first three years - ceased, Powell had to find new sponsors.
He received some sponsorship and a grant from Sheffield City council to cover the rent. Recoup, an environmental action group, agreed to buy a lorry, baler and conveyor belt from BPF and donated it on permanent loan.
Reclaim, a charity, was formed in 1992 and Powell soon set about expansion. In 1993, a grant enabled him to employ a full-time trainer and, in 1994, moved Reclaim to its site on the Claywheels Lane industrial estate.
The firm has won reclamation contracts as far afield as Holland and Belgium, and now generates an annual turnover of approximately pound;600,000. It covers about half its cost through trading, the rest comes from government grants, the European Regional Development Fund, European Social Fund and corporate sponsorship.
Reclaim has just launched a "careholder" scheme to encourage individuals or companies to donate time and expertise. And a donation of pound;53,000 from the Environmental Action Fund for the Yorkshire and Humber region is funding collections in Sheffield.
But balancing the books is a delicate task. "We are always financially stretched," Powell admits.
Flexing to his workforce's needs has also been a challenge. Many have communication difficulties. Some don't speak at all. "You find ways around communicating and motivating by using improvised sign language, showing by example or being cheeky," he explains.
"There are some who would rather die than fail in a job," Powell adds. "I've had people stand by an empty conveyor belt for three hours because I had forgotten to tell them how to reload it."
David Greenwood, 43, started with the firm eight years ago. He says: "I like it here because I've made friends. It keeps me occupied and it's helped me speak up more. I give talks to day centres about Reclaim. I'm more confident."