Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Out to lunch: Michael Cunningham

Keen for Northern Ireland not to waste chance to capitalise on recycling capacity

Michael Cunningham

Dynamic entrepreneur Michael Cunningham tells Joris Minne the opportunity to create jobs and save ratepayers money is being ignored by decisionmakers

The waste management sector’s image needs a make-over, declares Michael Cunningham, who has been operating his Omagh-based recycling plant, RecyCo, since 2004.

A law graduate, Michael comes from a prominent Tyrone business family whose principal interests include Strathroy Dairy.

“When you come from the food sector you have a fair idea of the strict parameters within which you have to operate — it’s much the same in the recovery and recycling sector which is closely monitored,” he says.

And while the waste management business has been transformed in recent years, waste businesses are still viewed with some suspicion by the public.

“It used to be that waste was something that disappeared out of sight after the council bin men came and lifted it – it was not something you spent time thinking about,” he says.

“It was taken away and put into a big hole in the ground and that was the end of it. But the need now for each one of us to take responsibility for the waste we produce has forced us to take a closer look at how it’s managed. And while people are mostly in favour of recycling and have largely embraced a degree of environmentalist values by being careful with their waste, there still remains a perception that it is an unsavoury industry,” he says.

“Many of the dozen or so waste plants around the North are now operating with state-of-the-art technology, are closely monitored by the environment agency and employ hundreds of people.”

We are in Omagh town centre’s leading restaurant, Vanilla, and Michael looks more like a young corporate executive than a stereotypical waste management guy.

Following the completion of his degree at Trinity College Dublin, Michael set up successful recruitment businesses. But by 2004 he wanted to expand his interests. He put £3m where his mouth is and built up one of the most modern recycling plants on the island, moving to his current site only earlier this year.

“The recycling industry in Europe is now very advanced,” he says, adding that the growth potential in NI lies in the 650,000 tonnes of household waste generated annually and which ends up in a landfill.

“The dozen or so recycling plants dotted around NI now have the capacity to process this material and could maximise recycling and recovery very quickly to not only meet but exceed EU landfill diversion targets.

“Government policy, however, is to deal with this through the construction of three hugely expensive industrial complexes, including an incinerator which will tie up all local authorities to a 25-year waste management contract. The opportunity to increase jobs and save ratepayers money is being ignored by decisionmakers,” he says.

Michael has set up an independent body representing the sector’s interests and is optimistic there will be a rethink at departmental level.

In the meantime, Michael who is only 37 years old, has other interests. A keen footballer, cyclist and family man, he says he’s glad to be in Omagh.

“Tyrone is a centre of engineering excellence and to be running a business, which relies on advanced engineering hardware, much of which has been designed and built here, is marvellous.” Much of the recycling machinery in the world can find its origins in Tyrone because of big firms like Powerscreen, he explains.

Another glass of Chablis — he’s not driving — and a bit of dessert, in this case a well-executed creme brulee, and Michael starts to relax. Just in time to go home to his wife and their third baby, one-month-old Micheal.

Vanilla

Gratin: £5.95

Salad: £4.50

Chicken: £7.95

Curry: £8.25

Desserts x 2: £9.90

Coffees x 2: £3.60

Chablis: £18.75

Total: £58.90