9 November 2018


Ward's - Edwina at Wards 1980sA hundred years ago four brothers who specialised in demolition made a good if dusty living, but in 1939 Thomas Ward’s great grandfather set up the current Derbyshire firm. Then their main client was Stanton Steel – the name on old manhole covers. So they became experts in scrap metal, now the core of their business; soon they expanded into hazardous waste and confidential waste, where it’s possible to make money and care for the environment at the same time. One phone call, they say, and they’ll deal with the lot.

Thomas, the Commercial Manager, is one of four modern day directors, all brothers and cousins (it’s still privately-owned) creating a turnover of £180 million with 350 staff and 100 vehicles on four Derbyshire sites. It’s a step up from when I first visited in Swadlincote 25 years ago! Their skips are familiar, but we never think what happens next.

He showed us videos of how huge piles of rubbish are sorted, screened, crushed in massive shredders then shifted with a gigantic grab crane. A single shearing machine can cost £10m. Everything’s on a vast scale: this is Transformers for real. Their April 2018 venture was a new dock at Immingham; 26,000 tonnes of high quality scrap loaded onto a cargo vessel with as much care as embarking passengers on a cruise ship.

So what happens when your car goes to the breaker’s yard, or Wards collect scrap from Rolls-Royce or old fridges from Tesco? 90% of scrap is exported (the largest export from the UK by volume is.. rubbish). Modern blast furnaces turn it into useful metals again, but the best buyers are, surprisingly, in Pakistan. “As we were loading up our second cargo, we had buyers from Turkey and elsewhere pursuing us with offers,” Thomas explained, but even though Turkey has the biggest steel mills, getting export credit for that country is difficult whereas Pakistan customers pay promptly. For a moderately-sized firm like Wards, such considerations are crucial.

They offer “complete waste management solutions ensuring minimal waste to landfill,” and can recycle 97% of what comes to them, which means they’ve become problem solvers. Here’s one example: what to do about the 30% of metal waste which doesn’t have high value but still contains useful stuff like copper and non-ferrous metals? So one of his colleagues headed to Germany and put together several different machines to sort this stuff, thus saving money, and ensuring Wards are now industry leaders.

The trick is to shift quality upwards, so that a $100 a tonne load become $125 or more, all helping the bottom line. That does have an ironic side. Wards have developed their own standards, ensuring that the product they sell on is of high and guaranteed quality. That too has become the industry standard. But it’s led to complaints from customers of other (dodgy?) operators who claim to be selling “Wards specification” scrap when they’re not. That’s needed some tactful explanations…

Ward's - Thomas Ward and ECJ

The scrap industry is very fast moving.. who’d have thought that? Prices can change 40% overnight; more than once Thomas has been furiously recalculating and sending out price lists to buyers virtually immediately. It happens when a country like the USA engages in a trade war, and suddenly its rivals announce new tariffs themselves (this occured with steel under Trump).  So now the USA has retaliated by not selling scrap to Turkey – and that’s why buyers are queuing up.

Little things make a big difference. Aiming to have no lorry over 5 years old delivers savings on diesel and repairs – a big contrast to traditional scrap merchants who run all their machines into the ground. It improves reliability too: clients know this company will arrive on time. Every load on reception is photographed, to ensure compliance. Concreting the floor of their yards means less dust, less contamination. Many of their safety procedures like fire breaks on site are also nationally adopted now, again saving money in the long run. Two staff are full-time environmental health inspectors – that can look expensive, but it’s cheaper than a fine, bad press or even a site closure.

What’s the most profitable stuff they handle? Building site waste; after crushing and sorting, that can go straight back to another building site (from Barratt’s to the Manchester southern bypass, perhaps). We asked about plastic. Wards don’t export plastic. They sort it from mixed waste then send it to UK handlers. Selling it to incinerators is done at a loss; Wards are not yet big enough to own an incinerator, but they have thought about it.

Thomas sighed, “People want their waste to vanish.. they say they want to recycle, yet they don’t do it.”  We were left with that uncomfortable truth, and admiration for a business that is solving many of our mucky problems for us.