Mayo engineer is crushing it in the waste business
Tommy Griffith's has created an international engineering success by developing bottle crushers and solar-powered street bins
PEL Waste Reduction Equipment founder and chief executive Tommy Griffith: “Waste is always an issue.”
Climate change was not on the agenda when Tommy Griffith set up his waste engineering business in 2004. His early glass crushers were designed as much to help publicans save space on empty bottles awaiting collection and disposal than anything else.
But as we roll towards 2020, sustainability and reducing carbon footprint are firmly on the radar of every business, local authority and government department. Griffith’s PEL Waste Reduction Equipment is a company in the right place at the right time.
Griffith started by pottering around on his father’s farm before heading off to pursue mechanical engineering. Always interested in agriculture, he went to work with McHale’s, a Ballinrobe engineering group specialising in agricultural machinery, which he described as “the best education you could get”.
By his mid-20s, he was actively looking around for an opportunity to go into business for himself. He quickly identified waste as a niche where he could grow without bumping heads with established players in the agricultural engineering sector. “Waste is always an issue,” he says.
He was selling balers for compacting cardboard and plastic waste when he ran into a Letterkenny publican bemoaning the cost of providing storage and then removing glass bottles. It gave him the spark of an idea and he set about designing a compactor for glass.
The PEL Bottle Crusher used metal jaws to reduce the volume of glass by 80 per cent. What started out as a one-man operation became a business with a patented product selling into hotels, pubs and restaurants across the country and then into Britain and continental Europe.
Just 30, Griffith was in business.
Griffith’s PEL Waste Reduction Equipment expanded its range, winning big contracts with the likes of Tesco, which had one of his waste compactors outside every store. That threw up new problems.
“On some of our Tesco sites, the waste area might be in a corner of the car park and to get electricity to these areas costs money and means digging things up,” he says. “And sometimes Tesco might not even own the car park, further complicating things.”
Griffith’s answer was to see if they could use solar to power their compactors. When they cracked it, Griffith’s first thought was how to make the most of it.
“I said we’d target street litter. I suppose the reason is that, when you go into a council, you’re talking about volume orders. It’s not just one unit; it could be a thousand units, so now you’re moving onto a big playing field,” he says.
By this time, green was on the agenda – both in council chambers and at Griffith’s headquarters in Balla, midway between Castlebar and Claremorris. He was aware that street litter was becoming a big problem and not just because it was unsightly and attracted vermin, but because of emissions.
Emptying bins meant sending trucks around several times a day. And often those bins didn’t need emptying.
“I knew if we could come up with some way of running a street bin by solar, compacting the waste, increasing capacity, at a time when there is a war on carbon , trucks, diesel and the like, we’d have a real opportunity.”
And then there’s the technology. The SolarStreetBins PEL have developed come with sensors and software that let businesses and local authorities see just how full they are and allow them plan how to organise their emptying in a way that minimises cost and reduces the carbon footprint.
“We’ve changed from being seen as a cheap metal manufacturing type company into a technology business,” says Griffith. PEL says its bins reduce the number of litter collection visits by up to 90 per cent. The bins’ compacting system increases capacity by up to 10 times and the Britebin software issues wireless alerts when the bins are full and need emptying.
The software can generate route maps for litter collectors, highlighting only those bins that need emptying. They don’t have to wait for the bins to let them know they’re full. Customers can also log in to the platform to examine patterns of waste dating back to when the bin was installed.
“So, for instance, it’s now Tuesday and the software can predict on the basis of the current amount of compacted waste in the bin and historic usage patterns that the bin will need to be emptied by Friday, or Saturday, or whatever.”
The route maps can highlight to collectors, for instance, only those bins that are over 60 per cent full, or 80 per cent, or whatever the customer chooses.
The technology will even alert customers if there is a fire in one of the units. A suppression system inside the bins shuts down access once the temperature rises above 80 degrees, keeping passerby safe, and cutting off air flow to suffocate any flames.
That’s a lot of technology for something as functional as a kerbside litter bin.
For all the gadgetry inside, the units themselves are refreshingly uncomplicated, with the outer casing made for stainless steel or galvanised material that makes for a long-lasting, durable product.
And inside is a standard wheelie bin. “The beauty of it is that it is a standard bin across Europe and even into the United States,” he says. The other advantage – both for the environmental and safety points of view –, Griffith says is that it eliminates the need for plastic bags.
“By putting a plastic bag inside the bin, you’re creating waste. By going to zero plastic, it is only the waste that is in the bin. And collectors can come along at six in the morning, take out the bin and tip it straight into a standard dustcart,” he says. The lack of plastic and the avoidance of manual handling also overcome the issue of needles and other sharp objects in the bags injuring collectors.
Griffith now sells worldwide but he remains close to his roots. The company operates out of Balla and every piece he sells is manufactured locally.
“We manufacture in Mayo. The components are Irish, the control panels come from a local electrical power supply business, so everything is being generate locally – even for the US market.
Shipping to the States is not actually that expensive, he says, “and at least we can still control the quality”. And using solar power means that the bins don’t have to contend with the vagaries of voltage “so it’s an easier product to integrate into their system”.
Keeping production in house means that, unlike competitors, PEL can customise their products to suit the needs of individual customers – even turning them into wifi hubs on request.
“We’ll integrate whatever they want on the bin,” Griffith says. “In San Francisco, you have the main bin for litter, we have a dog waste bin attached on one side and we have an ashtray on the other side. And every bin we supply to San Francisco has an emergency phone charger integrated into it.
“I suppose because we are a small private company, we can come up with ideas and we can implement them into the system very fast.”
One of the more surprising discoveries Griffith made along the way was pure accident – discovering just who, or what, is responsible for much of the litter strewn around city streets. The assumption had always been that it was just people carelessly discarding waste.Apparently not: much is down to seagulls pulling stuff out of open-top bins in search of food.
The PEL bins have a shutter opening operated by a foot pedal that means people do not have to physically touch the bins. It also makes them inaccessible to the birds and the experience, at least in Howth where Fingal county council has started rolling out the bins, is that it has cut down on street litter.
The openings can also be reduced in size for areas vulnerable to fly-tipping, making them impractical to people dumping their household rubbish.
It hasn’t just been in product design, technology and green credentials that PEL has been innovative. It has also learned to adapt quickly to changing economic circumstances.
When the financial crash hit Ireland, PEL’s business “turned off like a tap”. Cutting capital expenditure was an easy call for customers but it meant Griffith and his team were manufacturing product they couldn’t sell.
“Our only way to keep production flowing and to keep moving product was to start renting product out,” Griffith recalls. But out of necessity came opportunity. Rental gives the company recurring income.
PEL rents out the bins over a five- or 10-year period, it can maintain them and, at the end of the lease period, it replaces them with updated units, refurbishing the older ones for lower-cost markets.
“That rental book keeps growing because, once you give a person a rental, they never change. I suppose from their point they’re saving money from day one by not having the capital expense up-front.”
The rental model now accounts for most of the company’s business in Ireland and the UK.
But much of the company’s growth is abroad. PEL has just won a tender in Marseille and it is currently in the hunt for more. Its bins can be found as far afield as Oslo, Tel Aviv, Antwerp, as well as in Poland and Latvia. And they are heading for Dubai.
The spectre of Brexit has been a concern. “Sales did drop. There’s no point saying they didn’t,” says Griffith. “But it is an important market where you have 60 million people and it is on your doorstep. It cannot be overlooked no matter how we go about it.”
He acknowledges PEL has diluted its dependence on the UK by focusing on markets further afield but, mostly he just wants to see the decision made – “either in or out and get a move on”.
PEL employs 23 people directly, with another 40 or 50 working for subcontractors. That figure is likely to double or treble in the next two to three years, Griffith says.
“We’re in a good growth curve at the moment,” Griffith says, noting the solar bins are only on the market for around 18 months. “The world is our oyster. It’s just to cover it as fast as we can before competitors come into the market.”
So how does it feel to build an international business from your home village?
“Oftentimes, you don’t actually realise what you’re doing,” he says. “I do it because I love it and because it’s all I know at this stage. I suppose your responsibility has changed from being one guy on your own to having families that are dependent on you. Not just my family but our employees’ families, so things change fast.
“With technology today and the infrastructure we have, there’s no reason why people can’t work from the likes of Mayo,” he says. “And when you create a job in Mayo, it’s probably worth 10 in the city because of the shortage of employment. So, it’s very important to keep rural Ireland alive.”
Demand means PEL has to expand and Griffith has just acquired a building in Ballindine, a village the far side of Claremorris, that will increase capacity by 20,000 square feet at the beginning of next year.
Digging into the history of the building he had bought, he discovered it was built by a relation – also an engineer – who returned from the UK to bring employment to the area in the 1950s with a gasket factory. It’s a nice bit of history to have and a neat closing of the circle.
Name: Tommy Griffith
Position: Founder and chief executive, PEL Waste Reduction Equipment
Lives: In Balla, Co Mayo, where he grew up.
Family: Married to Sue Ellen, they have two children.
Interests: As befits the son of a dairy farmer, he has his own farmland that he works in his down time. He also has a strong interest in sport, though these days most of his time in that arena is spent coaching his children’s teams.
Something you would expect: An engineer by training, much of Griffith’s work now is focused on selling, something that sees him spend large parts of his working week on the road, knocking on doors to secure contracts.
Something that might surprise: A relation, Patrick Griffith, was also an accomplished engineer who emigrated from Mayo to England, where he invented a light-density aircraft fuel. He was a pioneer in the motor industry, concentrating on the development of gaskets and perfecting a special copper-coated gasket used extensively in aircraft and motor car engines.