Councils repair 2.2m potholes in the UK each year. Brits use 15 million plastic bottles each day. These facts are seemingly unrelated, but together they form the compelling rationale behind MacRebur, a new business that has raised more than £1m to pursue its aim of turning waste plastic into durable road surfaces.
The company was created by Toby McCartney, along with friends Gordon Reed and Nick Burnett (hence ‘Mac-Re-Bur’), whose inspiration came from a trip to India to do charity work and a conversation with his mother-in-law.
‘They have a huge problem with waste in India and some of the kids were employed to go into rubbish dumps as 'pickers' – they’re given a stick, on the end of the stick is a spike, and they go on to dumps and pick out various different items,’ he tells MT. ‘They would take things like Ribena cartons and sew them together to form a wallet, a handbag, a purse. They were creating things from the rubbish that tourists were throwing away.
‘Years later my mother in law was complaining at me about the quality of the road outside of my house. She'd just received a bill from the garage because she'd broken the suspension on her car, and she said to my wife and I that we need to sort the road out because she wasn't going to visit us anymore.’ (Perhaps not a problem many people would be in a hurry to solve...)
‘I remembered something I'd seen in India, where they also had a pothole problem. What they'd been doing is going to the landfill site, taking rubbish, putting that into potholes, pouring diesel all over it and burning it. All the stuff melted down to form a seal in the hole.’
Over here the authorities may not be so keen to encourage acts of roadside pyromania, but now McCartney had the seed of an idea. He teamed up with Reed and Burnett and they developed a process to turn recycled plastics into pellets (pictured below) that can be used as a material for road construction, replacing some of the bitumen used in the production of asphalt.
As well as being cheaper and better for the environment, MacRebur says its pellets improve a road’s strength, reducing maintenance costs and the proliferation of those pesky potholes. So far the company has inked deals with several county councils to use their waste plastics, and counts the likes of Cemex, Tarmac and Aggregate Industries among its clients.
Earlier this year the start-up managed to raise £1.3m through the equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs. ‘We were originally advised to go down the VC route and we came down to London and met with some of them,’ says McCartney. But they ‘asked us ridiculous questions, like why can’t we just produce new plastics to put in the road, they completely missed the whole point of the business. We’re here to use waste plastics, not just to create stronger roads.’ So after winning Virgin Media’s Voom pitching competition and generating a load of attention in the process, crowdfunding seemed like a better idea.
MacRebur is set to break even in this, its first year of trading, but McCartney says he expects to generate healthy profits next year. ‘Our main plan for next year is to expand outside of as well as in the UK - there's lot of local authorities that we don't yet have on board. Wherever they have asphalt being laid we want to be there.’
In the long-term, ‘it's early days for us to even think about selling. But we all think of this as our legacy.’ For McCartney, the business’s mission is personal. That’s partly because of an assembly he attended at his daughter’s school. Asked what kind of animals live in the sea, she put her hand up and said ‘plastic.’
‘I had one of those emotional moments when I just thought, I need to do something about that. I don't want my little girl growing up in a world where actually that is the case. By the time my little girl is my age, it's expected there will be more plastics in our oceans than fish themselves. And I think that is just appalling, I've got to do something about that.
‘So that's what's driving me - it's not the want to build a business to sell it, I want to be able to turn around and say, actually, I made a difference.’