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A cool look at a recycling innovator

Online retail specialist AO’s belief in total customer service has prompted big strides into the challenging world of fridge recycling.

The area where the Industrial Revolution kicked off in the United Kingdom has been witnessing a major upheaval in recycling. More than 300 years ago, Abraham Darby perfected his technique of smelting iron with coke in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, a county that sits between Wales and the West Midlands. The innovation allowed much cheaper production of iron – and the rest is history.

Today, Coalbrookdale is part of Telford, a ‘new town’ established in the 1960s that now includes neighbouring various towns and villages and is conveniently placed to exploit the national motorway network. It is also home to AO Recycling which boasts the biggest recycling plant in the UK for fridges and other large domestic appliances (LDAs). It is close to finalising another in the south-east.

No more fridge mountains

The disposal of a fridge reaching its end-of-life has long been a challenge. Before the days of producer responsibility, the economics of recycling such appliances did not stack up. Two decades ago, in the UK at least, ‘fridge mountains’ were regularly in the media, particularly because of concern that CFC coolants in fridges were helping to destroy the earth’s ozone layer.

Enter AO – formerly Appliances Online and now part of AO World group, one of the country’s biggest companies. The online-only retailer operates in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands and specialises in household appliances and electrical goods. The company was founded in 2000. It also owns AO Recycling.

AO founder John Roberts is passionate about total customer service. For Roberts, that means making it easier for customers throughout the lives of the products they’d been sold – including when they are no longer wanted.

Family involvement

Anthony Sant, managing director of AO Business, who proudly showed Recycling International around the new plant, says: ‘John was convinced that if we always make it easy for customers – easier than anyone else – they will realise we care more than anybody else, and they will give us their business. He showed that when he bought out its own logistics supplier a decade ago and that was why he then took over The Recycling Group (TRG).’

Anthony’s family has a close personal interest in these changes. Fifteen years ago, his father John and brother Robert were building TRG into a strong business. Anthony was the salesman.

‘We had no background in recycling but we knew how to do business. Our approach meant we won contracts – and we kept them. AO was a customer after 2004 when we won a contract to process all of its fridges. We had a strong relationship and we both knew what the other wanted.’

Bertha is queen

At that time, TRG was operating out of a small ageing plant in Wales, prices for fridge disposals were rock bottom and the economies just didn’t stack up. AO boss Roberts was concerned at the risk to his Holy Grail of total customer service so TRG became part of his group, and the investment was found for the state-of-the-art Telford facility – with the Sants still firmly involved.

The 80 000 sq ft unit is on a 9.5 acre site with a further four acres of storage nearby. It recycles more than 700 000 fridges a year, one-fifth of the appliances currently thrown away annually in the UK.

Overlooking all of the equipment is Bertha, an 80-tonne shredding machine built and installed by Austrian company, Andritz MeWa – the name being chosen by a colleague’s partner. Within Bertha’s sealed chamber, huge rotating steel chains smash up around 100 fridges an hour.

Stay tuned! The full article will appear in the next issue of Recycling International.

Have you ever wondered what recycled fridge fractions look like?

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