'I used to be …’

For inventor and environmentalist Ed Douglas Miller, the potential of the pencil launched an innovative new eco-business, as Lindsey Harrad discovered.

'I used to be …’

A pencil is a powerful tool – it's an instrument of learning and calculating, of communicating and creating. From writing your own name for the first time, to drafting an award-winning novel or sketching a design for an innovative new sustainable building, there's no limit to what you can achieve with a pencil.
Back in 2006, Ed Douglas Miller, managing director and founder of Remarkable, realised the potential of the pencil to communicate an important message about waste recycling, and spent two years developing the technology and the equipment to transform one disposable plastic cup into one useful new product – a pencil.
'Remarkable was set up to put a value to waste materials, to repurpose them as a resource,' he says. 'The initial concept was taking plastic cups out of offices and then turning them back into a product that could be used in an office, to make people realise the value of an item they were throwing away. So we took the plastic cups, turned them into pencils, took them back to the offices, with their company names printed on them to give them a personal feel. We didn't just say the pencils were recycled, we also said this pencil was made from a plastic cup, so people could engage with the story.'
Based in an old red-brick factory in Worcester, Remarkable became one of the first companies to demonstrate the emerging concept of 'closed loop' recycling, an idea that has now become a widely recognised process, when a product is used, recycled, turned into a new product and reused again. Of course, the companies who both recycle their waste responsibly and buy recycled products get the benefit of being able to say they've achieved a significant step towards implementing environmental policies and demonstrating corporate social responsibility, but it's an easier sell if you can give the products a wow factor too – and back then, no one was making funky, interesting items from waste materials in this way.
'We were lucky, as I think that in everyone there is an emotion that feels waste is bad, and by converting waste into a product that can be used, they know it's a good thing,' says Ed. 'The choice of a pencil was key to the success of the Remarkable concept. There's a sense of amazement that you can turn a plastic cup into a pencil, that innovation and technology can be used in this way to transform waste – it's a pencil, but it also represents something more.'

From cup to pencil

A pencil seems such a simple, cheap object, it's easy to assume it was chosen as Remarkable's first product because it was also simple and cheap to make.
'In fact, it's actually a phenomenally difficult process to make a pencil from plastic cups!' laughs Ed. 'I had the basic understanding of the chemistry of polymer engineering to suggest it could be done, but not only did I have to invent the process for this, we also had to make all the machinery ourselves to do it. But I wanted to use that individual item as a key narrative – I felt it wouldn't have the same impact to say that this pencil was made from 100 plastic cups, it had to be made from just one, one individual product becoming another. That way it has a connection to the one individual person who has drunk their coffee and thrown it away.'
However, a pencil is just a pencil, it's a mass-produced product and it's not a significant purchase – it's a useful item that costs 20 pence. This is an important point, because you can develop the technology to make a fantastic product and back it up with an engaging story, but people won't necessarily pay more for a product simply because it's made from recycled materials.
'They may have a much better story than a non-recycled product, and we made them look really cool and funky,' says Ed. 'But we knew we also had to make them financially viable, and be able to sell them for a comparative price as non-recycled products, as there's no point making a pencil that costs £20.'
With its pencils, Remarkable was one of the first UK manufacturers to demonstrate that a company could be run on eco-friendly principles, with a factory powered by renewable energy, and produce products that both look really good, and function as well as, if not better than, virgin products.
'There was a backlash of criticism against us at first, as back then it was seen as a poor show to make a profit from the environment,' Ed admits. 'But I was always quite forceful that the only way we could make a success of this project was to operate as a commercial business, and someone had to be prepared to make that statement and initiate change.'

We have the technology

A lifelong inventor, environmentalist and philanthropist, Ed, who recently appeared on Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire, has seen attitudes towards eco-business change dramatically over the last 17 years, but the market has also changed thanks to a flood of imported goods, often poor quality, from China.
In response, Remarkable has diversified and invented the technology to create new raw materials from other waste streams such as car tyres, old car parts and packaging, which has led to the development of all kinds of products from frisbees to 'grow your own herb' kits, umbrellas, calculators and torches, and given Remarkable a new resilience and confidence. 'People are amazed by the breadth of our processing capability and expertise,' says Ed. 'Our reputation has always rested on the performance of the recycled material, it has to function correctly in order to make the process of recycling worthwhile, otherwise it's pointless.'
Remarkable now processes old tyres into a material they use to make everything from notepads to bags, pencil cases and horticultural products. 'We have developed a significant bit of equipment and technology that allows us to turn tyres back into a very user-friendly material, and there aren't too many other solutions for tyres,' says Ed. 'It's not going to be the panacea to the tyre problem, but it does highlight the fact they can be reused efficiently and effectively into a very strong, robust material.'
You can now buy Remarkable products direct from its new online shop and pick up all kinds of quirky eco-gifts for Christmas. From colouring pencils made from recycled newspapers to pens made from corn-on-the-cob husks, and the original pencils – although now made from recycled CD cases rather than the original plastic cups – and they're all branded with their trademark slogan 'I used to be a…' and make a great talking point. You'll also find their stationery range on the high street in stores such as Paperchase, Oxfam and Waitrose, and they've recently started trials with Waterstones and Tesco.
Less glamorous, but no less important, is the work they do behind the scenes for eco-conscious companies. 'Lush – the high street fresh handmade cosmetics brand – already has an environmental message and position, so we work with them to take their product pots, which were previously thrown away, and recycle them into an entirely new packaging material that we supply back to Lush,' says Ed. 'This perfectly illustrates our concept. We take UK waste, recycle it in the UK, turn it into a UK-made product and sell it back to a UK company, which in my mind is the model of gold-standard environmental responsibility.'

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