Blue Sky is growing, winning an increasing number of commercial contracts to create jobs for ex-offenders. Since 2005 we have now employed over 940 ex-offenders, and currently have over 100 on our payroll. Building on our mainstay work over the years in grounds maintenance, Blue Sky has diversified in recent times to create employment opportunities in catering, distribution, laundry and waste management. This diversification would not be possible without teaming up with commercial companies bold and broad-minded enough to support our mission to reduce re-offending by giving ex-offenders a second chance in life. One such company is Closed Loop, a state-of-the-art plastics recycling plant based in Dagenham. Blue Sky CEO Mick May and I were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the plant by Head of Operations, Gerry Martin.
We meet Gerry in an office with a large window looking onto the plant: a vast, intricate interconnected structure of vats, pipes and conveyor belts. On the sill of the window sit examples of Closed Loop’s bread and butter business: ‘PET’ plastic bottles (the see-through kind used for drinks) and ‘HDPE’ bottles (the opaque kind that contain milk). Gerry, a spirited and hugely enthusiastic Scot, explains the recycling process in outline before taking us round the factory.
Closed Loop buys ‘bales’ of plastic waste from companies such as Viridor and Veolia who collect the stuff from the kerbside outside our homes. This waste (mostly plastic bottles but also containing other items of jaw-dropping variety, gleefully listed by Gerry) is then cleaned and sorted by a series of machines equipped with jets, lasers, magnets, and belts on different levels with gaps designed to filter out right from wrong-sized items. Gerry tells us the plant uses the very latest technology from around the world. It took a while to wade through the owner’s manuals, he quips, but it’s all now working beautifully. However, despite being cutting edge and deeply impressive, the technology can only go so far in sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Human eyes and hands are needed to pick out some of the rogue items that get missed by the uber-machines. This is where Blue Sky employees do their bit as part of Closed Loop’s team, working tough 12-hour shifts. Gerry steps in quickly to demonstrate the task, expertly scanning the fast-moving belt before fishing out then binning a white plastic medicine bottle.
We then leave the cleaning and sorting section of the plant (noisy and dirty for sure, but not half as bad as we were warned to expect) before entering the production zone, where the purring kit is Alpine, gleaming, dairy-clean. In, around and through further vats and pipes finally flows the end product into waiting, heavy-duty bags: small white pellets in the case of HDPE and colourless flakes in the case of PET. This is the stuff that Closed Loop sells to the manufacturers of bottles that eventually then end up in our homes. There’s huge demand for what Closed Loop does. It’s the only plant of its kind in the country producing both kinds of plastic, open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and employing 120 people.
We end the tour in a mini-laboratory that quality-checks the end product, a step not required by the industry but insisted on by Closed Loop. We suggest to Gerry Martin that he must be proud of the plant. “Not really,” says Gerry, suddenly and disarmingly downbeat in his judgement, having shown such enthusiasm on the tour. He goes on to explain, “There’s so much more we still need to do, especially in the sorting and cleaning section.” Gerry is clearly driven by a tireless perfectionism, a passion for getting things right. “We want to establish a different kind of culture here, one that is all about manufacturing, about producing something not just recycling. We want to focus on the quality of what we do and what we produce, not just ‘tonnage’, volume. The recycling industry as a whole is in its infancy in that regard.”
It’s inspirational to see such dedication at work in a largely hidden part of the economy, to witness the pursuit of quality for products that most of us take for granted. Blue Sky, I reflect, has a lot in common with Closed Loop, equally tireless in its pursuit of employment opportunities and quality support for ex-offenders who all too frequently are left on society’s kerbside, jobless on release from prison, out of the loop.
Blue Sky’s employment model
The jobs created by Blue Sky are ‘entry level’ opportunities (low-skilled, physically demanding at times) suitable for anyone regardless of previous employment or educational attainment. They may not be the most glamorous jobs in the world but they give ex-offenders an invaluable opportunity to prove themselves from day one, with little danger of reinforcing past failure. The jobs provide stability, a starting point, a platform to go on to achieve other things. During their 6-month contract employees receive training and help to find on-going employment. Nearly half go on to find a job elsewhere. Find out more about our support for employees here.