The attitude of ‘can do’

Interview: John Crossan – Waste Not Want Not

John Crossan is a committed environmentalist and this is why he is in the business that he is in.

He operates out of a small premises in Longford town which is dedicated to the recovery and recycling of drinking cans. It’s a bit of a slog, as he will be the first to admit, but he believes that the future for the recycling industry is looking up.

Along the way he met much indifference to waste issues, mainly from the bigger organisations in society and he learned a thing or two about business.

And it was in learning about business that he came to have his first practical experience in managing people and money. He was attending a Business Studies course in Sligo IT when he decided that the Student’s Union could be better run. He and a friend ran for election and he ended up as the president of the union for a year. 

“I learned more from being president than I learned from the books,” he recalls. “I learned about money. I learned that people can tell you one thing and be doing another. It woke me up to the fact that the world can be supposed to be one way but that the reality can be very different. People can be very corruptible and business has a lot of that in it.”

When his year was up he resumed his academic life at Galway IT where he did a Diploma in Business and Marketing. He admits that at that point he didn’t know what he was going to do with his qualification. 

After college in Galway, where he also became involved in the Student Union, he did a bit of travelling and he became involved in voluntary work.

He worked in a fair trade shop in Galway and he edited an environmental magazine – Tuar Ceatha. He helped set up a barter system in Galway based on the LETS system. In this alternative currency system members of the group offer their services and skills to others in exchange for services and skills they need themselves. The system is still operating in Galway to this day. 

He got involved in various small environmental initiatives such as collecting cans door to door and organising beach clean-ups. At this time he and a group of like-minded people in the Galway area decided that they would buy an acre of land and plant broadleaf trees on it. 

The plan was to raise the money from the sale of recycled cans. However, like a lot of good plans it got modified along the way. They decided that instead of planting trees in one spot, they would plant ideas in the heads of Irish children. And so the great Tree Walks of 1996 and 1997 came about.

The 1996 Tree Walk covered 700 miles and dozens of schools were visited along the way, where the environmentalists would tell the children of the importance of the natural world and environmental issues. Two horses and carts carried everything in the three month trek around Ireland.

The walk was so successful that the group repeated it the next year as well. It convinced John that these sort of efforts could make a difference.

“You could tell with the older children that they weren’t interested. They would have their arms folded and their body language was all defensive. But within a half an hour they would be leaning forward, wanting to learn more about the environment and what they could do about it.” he says.

The walk was revived again in 2003 when four separate walks took place from the four provinces of Ireland, with all the walks meeting in the centre.

“As a result of all this, I got interested in what I could do around me for the environment. There’s not much happening here except lip service and if you want something done about it you have to do it yourself,” he says.

So he decided to start recycling cans on a full-time basis. He moved back to Longford, a move with a couple of motivations about it.

“It’s centrally located for collecting waste material and I thought I would go back to where I was from and try to make a difference there.”

He bought a Hiace van and contacted organisations and venues all around the country. He thought that he would collect large amounts of cans from big concert venues and after football and hurling matches but he found that many of the bigger organisations weren’t interested in recycling at the time. It wasn’t so much that they were opposed to it as that it wasn’t in their thinking. They were still wedded to the idea of dumping everything even though John had promised to take away their cans for free. It was a bit of a struggle.

“I checked out every possible angle on where people gather and where cans are used. I contacted the heads of companies and all they wanted to know was ‘who put you on to me?’ Eventually you end up with the ordinary Irish people who are prepared to do it, but the big boys, I found, weren’t.” John says.

He found his local GAA counties more amenable to the whole idea and he now collects cans from county grounds in Longford, Westmeath, Leitrim and Roscommon.

He concentrated on pubs, restaurants, canteens and factories as well as going door to door if required. Over time, more people got to hear about the service and would keep the cans for him.

The cans are taken back to his premises in Longford where they are sorted and crushed with a small crusher John bought with the help of a grant from the Longford County Enterprise Board. 

The crushed cans are loaded on a big forty-foot truck and transported to an enormous factory in Warrington in England where they are smelted down so that the aluminium can be re-used.

He also recycles some other metals that he comes across but the business concentrates mostly on drink cans.

He would like to expand the business and move into bigger premises but he finds the Celtic Tiger rental rates out of his reach. Although he is able to provide himself with a living, the margins are small. He thinks that the Government should back up its words with some help to the recycling industry.

“If we had a larger premises we could expand and get into recycling plastics and other materials, maybe employ a few more people.”

Business-wise he thinks that he should have taken a more formal approach to setting up the operation. As it grew from something he was doing anyway, he missed out on the planning side of business start-up. What would he have done differently?

“I would have written everything down on paper, I would have written it all out: the research, a feasibility study and a business plan. But I just went ahead. I had an idea in my head and I did it.”

“I haven’t availed of many of the things that are available for new businesses like employment grants and start-up finance. Basically, I’m too busy to work on that side of things.”

He did some research on a product which won praise from an IDA business award scheme. He won’t divulge the details as he hopes to pursue the idea in the future.

For now, he’s walking the walk, while many others talk the talk. Although, the work is hard and sometimes grinding on a daily basis, he hasn’t lost the passion that led him into the recycling business .

“It’s great. I mean it’s hard work but it’s work for the future. It’s almost frightening to hear about all the emissions and climate change – what we know and what we’re not being told about.

“We need to start waking up, we are not God almighty on this planet, that we can do anything we want and it will be fine. I think that is starting to become more obvious every day.”