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Recycled Glass Kitchen Tops

»Tuesday, April 20,2010

Award winning Kitchentops that are not only an ingenious use of recycled glass but hard wearing and pleasing to look at.
"It’s attracted rave reviews from Kevin McCloud and won a National Recycling Award. Andrea Height visits GLASSeco to find out why"

How can you gain value from waste? It’s the question that most recycling and waste businesses are built on – and is one the team behind GLASSeco has found an interesting answer to.

The company offers a free glass waste collection to pubs, clubs and restaurants within a 10-mile radius of its Warlingham factory and turns this waste stream into an attractive, useful and desirable product: worktops made from 95% recycled content. As evidence of this desirability, GLASSeco marketing director Ruth Higham mentions that the day before my visit the company fitted a bespoke L-shaped kitchen worktop into a house in London’s swanky Knightsbridge area. The owners opted for a distinctive black and white design, which one of GLASSeco’s fitters has unofficially named the ‘Out of Africa’ pattern for its resemblance to animal print. Such orders show the product is being purchased for its aesthetic qualities rather than just environmental ones. In addition, the material’s potential has captured the imagination of architects and specifiers who are interested in using it as cladding or seamless flooring that can be poured in situ, although further research and development needs to be done before this becomes reality.
Higham walks me through the 9,000 sq ft factory, which was designed with high eco credentials, so that it produces no waste, recycles water and uses minimal electricity. Bespoke moulds for each worktop are made, so there is no waste from cut outs for sinks, common when producing granite worktops.
Currently the factory is producing and fitting about two worktops a day and collecting about five tonnes of glass waste a month.

Shelves running down a wall hold dozens of dull looking plastic buckets that belie their contents. Forming the recycling equivalent of a pick and mix selection at a sweet shop, there is a bucket of jewel-like blue glass from a particular brand of bottled water, another of crushed shells from restaurants and another with glass from car windscreens. Along with numerous other materials, these can be used in various combinations, to create unique finishes. Clients can provide their own material, like the newlyweds who turned the champagne bottles from their wedding reception into worktops for their new kitchen.

In another area, two workers clad in white overalls are creating white, sparkly splash backs. Like artists, they sprinkle the glass mixture onto a specially-designed mixing table, which creates unique speckled patterns. To make the worktops lighter to transport and manoeuvre, they fit a sub-strata sheet to the underside of the worktop. This is made from recycled plastic bags and supplied in sheets by Centriforce.

GLASSeco has been running for about year and the business moved into the factory in August 2008, after operating out of a much smaller industrial unit not much bigger than a double garage.   Higham had originally been working with designer Bill Bradley, at his joinery company Talisman Manufacturing. About two years ago Bradley built two eco houses which were featured on the popular Channel 4 programme Grand Designs. When it came to fitting out the eco kitchen, Bradley was struggling to find a material for the kitchen worktops that was both sustainable and attractive. Higham happened to mention this to some of the other mums at her child’s school and that led her to “recycling guru” Donald Crawley, who was running a cable recycling business at the time.

“It was one of those chance conversations. One of the mums happened to know her husband’s brother was making recycled glass worktops, literally in the shed at the bottom of his garden. That turned out to be Donald. So I phoned him, went over to see what he had been doing, really liked the worktops and persuaded him to come and template,” Higham recounts. Crawley rose to the challenge and his recycled glass worktops featured  weeks later on Grand Designs. That was in May 2007.

“There was a huge reaction after the programme. People wanted to know about several of the eco materials that had been used, especially the worktops. Where did you get them? How can I get them?  Bill started getting recognised – it was a hugely popular programme, more popular than we maybe initially realised,” Higham says.

“The positive feedback from the general public made us think ’Come on, let’s have a go at this’. So we put our hats in the ring and GLASSeco was formed as a company in October 2007,” she continues.

Higham, Crawley and Bradley remortgaged their homes, borrowed cash from family and friends and spent a couple of months writing a business plan and developing the product, thinking about how they could take what Crawley had been doing on an artisan scale to the masses. In February 2008 they went to EcoBuild, a trade exhibition for those in sustainable building, where they had been asked to make splashbacks for the main showcase Zero Carbon house.

Recommended by Kevin McCloud
“There was a phenomenal response from the show, from really top architects,” Higham says. It even caught the eye of Norman Foster’s architectural practice, which selected GLASSeco as one of its top products at the show.  Not long after, RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) awarded Bill's house the accolade of Best Private House, London, and  invited GLASSeco to attend an in-house event showcasing new modern, sustainable building materials that could offer members a real cutting-edge. “We met a lot of leading architects who are really driving the sustainable movement. They are searching for new green products but finding that a lot of products simply claim to be green and there is a lot of greenwash out there,” Higham says. She adds that the advertising rules and regulations are due to be changed shortly, so anyone claiming to sell a green product will have to verify their claims. Higham says this will benefit small, genuinely green companies, who cannot compete with the huge advertising and marketing budgets of the big companies.

In the summer of 2008, GLASSeco reunited with Grand Designs, taking part in the Grand Designs Live programme, which meant providing kitchen worktops for a house that was being built live on TV. Again, reaction to the product was huge, with coverage in both the UK and overseas.  But while it may seem like a rapid ascent to stardom, Crawley actually started experimenting with mixing glass and waste plastic and cement about 10 years ago. Why?

“I realised that post-use waste glass wasn’t being suitably disposed of. It was a product that was free and that you could make a new material from it that would sell for a reasonable amount,” he says. He tried bonding the glass with various materials, discounting each one, until he found it worked with resin – the element that is currently not recycled, although the company is now looking at using recycled resin. Is there a reason he focused on worktops?

“I wanted to make a bigger product that was easier to sell and cheaper to produce as an industrial product. It was easier to start with a low volume, high margin product, which is how we got into kitchens and furniture,” he explains.

Having spent so long developing the product, which is only now paying him a wage, Crawley is not one to be swept away by the sudden interest. And he’s realistic about the difficulties faced by any start up business.
“The business is full of challenges. It’s very rewarding but you don’t get any help, you really are out on your own, so you have to learn at the cutting edge,” he explains.

He’s equally realistic about the company’s future. “In ten years time it would be nice to have two or three businesses in different places, in different parts of the country or Europe or other places. We are still not even in 0.01% of the market, with plenty of room to expand - but we want to do so prudently and properly.”  



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