Covid-19 has been challenging tech providers worldwide and Tomra Recycling is no exception. Video conferences and remote servicing have become the new normal. Tomra has learned from the pandemic, says ceo Tom Eng in a Zoom chat with Recycling International.
Without the coronavirus crisis, frequent flyer Tom Eng would probably have travelled the globe meeting customers, visiting trade shows, and attending conferences. But like so many of us, he was locked down in his home office for most of the past 14 months. Home is just outside Norway’s capital Oslo – certainly not the worst place to live, he says. ‘There’s a beautiful fjord less than 700 metres from our house and it takes only 15 minutes by car to get to the nearest ski area.’
How do you look back on the past year?
‘With mixed feelings. It is frustrating not to be able to see colleagues and customers. We have missed that so much. It would be a lie to say we were prepared for this crisis – who was? From one day to the next we had to switch to virtual meetings and events. How do you facilitate that in the right way with the right tools?
It is also about managing people: telling the sales guys they cannot physically visit customers anymore so we have to do it in a different way. A substantial part of sales work is consultative selling. Our experts have to go on site to see the specific needs at a facility. With travel restrictions in place worldwide, you can imagine this being a real challenge.
The main lesson learned from the crisis is that we have been able to successfully adapt to this new reality and communicate in a new way, both internally and externally. We launched a live online event to showcase our latest solutions – more than 1 000 participants were welcomed. There will be more of that and a little fewer physical trade shows in the future.’
What has been the impact of the pandemic on your business?
‘Fortunately, recycling is considered an essential industry. Most facilities and operations have been up and running during the pandemic. Companies were and still are investing in new recycling solutions, so orders continued and continue to come in. Shipping was a bit of a concern. We have been confronted with delays but nothing dramatic. At an early stage in the crisis we decided to smartly divide finished goods between our production sites in Slovakia and Germany, in case one of the facilities was locked down.
Servicing has not suffered. A lot of work by our engineers can be done remotely. What helps is that we have a global network of service people in Japan, Korea, China, India, Middle East, Australia, South America, South Africa and across Europe.’
What are Tomra’s latest innovations?
‘Our top three includes the renewed Autosort solution of which a few hundred units are in operation worldwide. Another is the Innosort – 100 units installed to date – that addresses the need for a smarter solution to separate PET flakes in order to achieve higher quality materials.
Tomra Inside is the name of our data-based innovation that had a soft launch in 2019. Tomra Inside potentially collects data from all of the 7 400 Tomra units in operation worldwide. The data can be analysed, for example, to see what happened in the plant during the night shift. Moreover, it can be used to optimise performance of every individual sorting unit in a facility. Further down the road, it could also identify trends in the materials used in certain packaging.’
What are the main drivers for your business?
‘Rules and regulation – like the EU Green Deal and the revised Basel Convention banning plastics exports. This will sooner or later boost plastics recycling at home and that drives demand for smart recycling technology.
What Europe is doing is having a worldwide impact, I believe. The Biden administration is definitely greener than the previous one. California is introducing new laws on plastics and even India is talking about them. Obviously, more regulation affects how our business evolves.’
What is the biggest challenge for a smart tech provider like Tomra?
‘Making the circular economy truly work. Chemical/oil companies and big retail brands need high quality recycled content. These guys are much more ahead in innovation; look at food safety. The waste industry has never been in the forefront of new developments but the circular economy forces the sector to take that next step. Bigger volumes require bigger plants. So where you now have five sorting units, you may see 40-50 units in the future.
Deep learning or artificial intelligence (AI) will be playing a more and more important role and at Tomra we have taken up this development. Knowing and understanding the material stream is crucial. Brands want to know where a specific object is going, so only detecting the material is not good enough.’
Looking at emerging markets, where do you see the biggest growth?
‘Asia dominates with China on top of the rankings. Tomra has a couple of hundred of units in operation in the People’s Republic with potentially many more lines installed in the future. Indonesia has high potential. We’re not doing much there yet – a few units have been installed (see page 24-25 of our new issue) – but it has a fast growing population and major economic growth. The country could become the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2030.
South Africa is interesting and certain parts of North Africa may also offer opportunities in the future. But they need some kind of proper legislation to boost circularity and consciousness. Clearly, if your first focus in the morning and evening is how to get food on the table, your first focus is probably not on what happens to PET bottles.
Another major market op opportunity is India. However, change is coming too slowly. They may have the Chinese numbers in terms of population but their system is far from similar to China’s. The waste volume is not the issue; there’s plenty of waste.’
The future of recycling will only be bright if…
‘…We combine the right technology with operational know-how – digitisation – and the best skilled people.’
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