Our boardwalk near Drogheda is the largest in Europe
Sara Velasquez, boss of Ecoplastic, tells how an innovative idea to deal with waste from bags containing equipment for road markings has developed into different methods of utilising recycled plastic material.
Where did the idea for Ecoplastic come from?
In 1996, our sister company BPF Road Safety Ltd was generating a lot of plastic waste from the bags containing the thermoplastic for road markings. Our chairman Pat Fitzsimons was looking for an innovative way to reuse them, and Ecoplastic Recycling Ltd was born.
Was there funding from government for research and development (R&D)? Is there enough support out there for a company of your size to get their ideas realised?
We have had support from Invest NI throughout our history, though it is only in much more recently that this has included R&D.
It is always difficult for a company of our size to be taken seriously in R&D.
Ecoplastic has been adapted to uses like street furniture and fencing – have you any other uses in mind you can tell us about?
The use of recycled plastic as a material to create benches, bollards and fencing is as old as the recycled plastic industry itself.
The use of recycled plastic as a structural material, however, is much more cutting edge and is an area Ecoplastic continues to push into.
Ecoplastic is innovating in the creation of large-scale boardwalks as part of tourist amenity sites. The 3250 sq m of Ecoplastic boardwalk recently opened along the Boyne river near Drogheda is the largest of its kind in Europe and features 100% recycled plastic piles driven into the river bed to support the 100% recycled plastic walkway structure. It's maintenance free and is 1/9th the cost of a similar structure in steel.
One of the most exciting new uses of recycled plastic is creating boardwalks for the mountain bike industry in Ireland and beyond. Ecoplastic created 'Ecogrip', a highly slip resistant, maintenance-free boardwalk surfacing that's becoming the standard in mountain bike trail design.
As a company that uses recycled products, what do you think is the solution to the landfill problem? Are you a supporter of 'energy from waste' proposals?
Many local councils in Northern Ireland do not ask householders to recycle plastic by type, but by shape. In order to create a recycled plastic of excellent consistency, such as the one we use, it is essential that only PE plastic is contained in the mix. I personally do support the proposal to generate energy from waste in principle. Hopefully as technology improves and people see the benefits, we will see more energy coming from these sources.
You have provided Ecoplastic structures for tourism attractions in the Republic. Do you see a distinction between how tourism is treated in the south and Northern Ireland?
One of the strands of the tourism policy in the Republic that we have benefited from over the last few years is the commitment to high quality looped walks. To improve the quality of a walk may mean improving mapping and signage, bridges, stiles, boardwalks or seating, which we have been developing in maintenance-free recycled plastic.
This infrastructure then attracts visitors and regular users locally and improves the economy of the area.
In Northern Ireland, there has also been a development of these sorts of facilities under the signature projects, but it has been handled at local government level, managed by design companies and it has proved difficult to get opportunities to put our products in front of the specifiers at the right time.
What impact has the strength of sterling had on your business?
We try to offset the effect of the stronger sterling on exporting by buying our raw material from the euro zone. We absorb what we can of the changes and try to keep our prices as stable as possible.
When we do have to make changes, we advise our clients with as much notice as possible. The key is to build strong relationships with our customers so that they are aware of the benefits.