Covid: The impact on recycling

With the high street shut and online retail scaling new heights, households find themselves the recipient of ever more packaging material. Great British Woodwool looks at the recycling challenge this presents.

As last year’s coronavirus pandemic took hold around the globe, it did at least seem as if there might be one major upside to events: the planet was being given a chance to get its breath back.

Transportation networks ground to a halt, and in satellite images we watched the skies literally clearing. Scientists testified to plunging levels of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Marine biologists measured instant improvements in the health of the oceans.

One year on, though, and the picture is more complex. After a dramatically steep fall in transport-related carbon emissions in April, when global lockdowns were at their most comprehensive, there was some bounce back; and the swift industrial recovery of nations such as China meant that, in the end, total emissions from industry were not down on 2019.

And then there is the problem of plastics.

It is becoming clear that recycling – and particularly, as always, the recycling of plastics – has suffered under Covid-19. For, while lockdowns may have kept traffic off the roads, they have at the same time fuelled traffic online. And that has meant a surge in online purchases and deliveries – with all the forms of packaging those entail.

Examples of how the trend is threatening to overwhelm local recycling facilities have recently been reported in the news.

For example, according to the BBC, Cardiff council was after Christmas faced with 400 tonnes of extra recycling – a direct consequence, they observed, of ‘the early lockdown and a big shift towards online shopping’.

But the circumstances of the pandemic meant that it was the worst possible time to address the challenge. For while the council would have needed an extra 150 pairs of hands to collect the recycling, it had in fact far fewer to spare than usual – thanks to the prior claims of similarly high volumes of general and food waste, and, of course, the unavailability of workers due to sickness or self-isolation.

During the original spring lockdown, the same council – along with councils in St Helens and Inverclyde – resorted to sending bags of household recycling to the incinerator. This decision, in the case of Cardiff at least, was influenced by concerns over safety and an assessment of the dangers of sorting recycling by hand.

Though that was a temporary measure, sorting waste has in fact become generally problematic during the pandemic, not least because of the presence in the mix of used face coverings and other PPE. It’s not just that those materials do indeed pose a safety risk to workers; it’s that they are not, in any case, ordinarily recyclable. Manchester’s Materials Recovery Facility, for one, reported a spike last year in rejected recycling loads thanks to this very source of contamination.

Face coverings – the disposable surgical mask variety – contain non-recyclable plastic. And though the World Health Organisation is clear that washable fabric masks are no less effective, the continuing popularity of the throwaway kind illustrates how the pandemic – and a consequent public prioritising of what is taken to be most hygienic – has already put the single-use plastic problem firmly back on the table.

It’s a development that extends to the whole of the packaging industry.

Starbucks, for example, ‘out of an abundance of caution’ (their Europe spokesman, Robert Lynch, told the BBC back in March), paused the use of customers’ personal cups in the UK in favour of their own disposable cups (which usually end up in landfill, thanks to how difficult it is to separate the paper from its plastic lining).

Across North America, planned bans on single-use plastic shopping bags have been postponed. In Scotland, the Circular Economy Bill – legislation dedicated, in the words of that government’s Environment Secretary, to ‘a fundamental re-think about how we use and reuse materials’ – was in April put on indefinite hold.

It’s in part the generally paralysing effect of the pandemic. But it’s also an obvious reflection of what a recent McKinsey report called ‘a new appreciation by consumers and industries of the hygiene advantages plastic packaging can offer that seems to be outweighing concerns about recyclability and plastic-waste leakage into the environment’.

Perfecting the storm, as it were, is the now ultra-low price of oil. That collapsed market has rendered the cost of production for virgin plastic lower than ever – presenting to manufacturers a freshly competitive alternative to recycled materials at a time of renewed consumer demand.

The hope for the recycling industry must be that all these points of negative impact will prove transient.

And it’s a fair hope. As things stand, oil prices are expected to recover through 2021, possibly returning to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year. And the UK government, though it indeed delayed its own anti-plastic bag legislation in March, did in the end implement it at the beginning of October.

It’s a question of firm commitments and deep trends riding out the disruptions of the pandemic. And in a number of quarters those trends and commitments do seem to be holding firm.

In April, for example, when the European Plastics Converters trade association called on the European Commission to lift its ban on some single-use plastics (on the grounds that ‘hygiene and consumer health will be the number one priority’), the Commission refuted the argument.

And similar resolve is visible at the highest levels of business. It’s reassuring to note that not one of the packaged goods companies currently signed up to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy project – committed thereby to ‘a circular economy for plastic in which it never becomes waste’ – has changed their plans because of the pandemic.

As it did us all, Covid-19 caught the recycling industry off guard; and it has, to some extent, unquestionably derailed operations.

But there is no evidence yet that it has shaken a larger, shared determination to eliminate unnecessary plastics, and their manufacture, from the world of packaging.

Christmas before the Victorians

Someone once said that Christmas was invented by Charles Dickens. What they meant, of course, is that so much of the look and feel of Christmas as we celebrate it today – from the tree to the turkey, from the presents to the parlour games – owes more to the author of A Christmas Carol (1847), and to Victorian customs generally, than to anything that went before.

But how true is that? What did the festive season look like before the Victorians set their indelible stamp on it? How did they celebrate Christmas in an earlier age?

In some ways, very differently indeed. For a start, before the nineteenth century, Christmas was more of a season than a two-or-three-day event. It lasted at least twelve days, from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night (5th January); though could equally, in some parts of the country, go on for the entire calendar month that began on St Nicholas’s Day (6th December).

Marked out mainly by a visit to church, Christmas Day itself would have been a relatively quiet interlude in what, by the Georgian and Regency eras, had become a period of sustained party-going and open houses. Presents were exchanged throughout the season – beginning on St Nicholas’s Day and culminating on Twelfth Night.

That was for the wealthy, of course. But, even for the less well-off, Christmas still meant an extended holiday (farm workers, for example, not returning to the land until ‘Plough Monday’ in the second week of January). And there was a strong tradition, among landowners and employers, of seasonal largesse: gifts and ‘boxes’ of money would be distributed on Boxing Day and, less commonly, banquets laid on for the parish poor.

In great and humble houses alike, decorations (before the Victorians introduced coloured glass and tinsel) were simple boughs and wreaths of greenery brought in from the outdoors: holly, ivy and mistletoe, obviously, but also rosemary, laurel and bay. These were an ancient tradition – symbolising life continuing through the depths of winter – that had continued unbroken since pagan times.

No Christmas trees, though: at least not for most people. That Christmas trees were entirely unknown in Britain before the Victorian period is in fact a bit of a myth. One had, in fact, been a fixture of the royal festivities since George III’s glamorous queen consort Charlotte had put a decorated yew on display at Windsor in 1800. It was not, though, until a fir instated by Prince Albert was featured in The Illustrated London News of 1848 that the Christmas tree caught the popular imagination.

Actually, there wasn’t much about Christmas in the eighteenth century that didn’t hark back to a much older age. The leisurely pace of the season, the great parties in great halls, the observance of charitable acts, were all continuations of customs that dated back to medieval times at least.

Many of the minor traditions are almost completely lost to us now. People still went wassailing up until the nineteenth century (at which point it began to feel uncomfortably heathen, and Christian carolling took its place). On Twelfth Night, high-spirited bands of wassailers would carouse through a parish from house to house, generous with song and festive wishes but firmly expectant of cider and pudding in equally generous return.

Mummers’ plays were a similar sort of phenomenon. These were folk dramas performed by travelling players – again, typically in order to drum up rewards of food or coin – who, costumed as animals and figures from fable, would act out legendary stories. Some such narratives even featured a Father Christmas character – though at this date he had no fixed appearance (the now iconic image of a white-bearded, red-robed jolly gentleman became standardised only in book and magazine illustrations from the 1840s onwards).

And in the great houses, helping to pass the time through the protracted partying, hundreds of now-half-forgotten games would be played. Some of these used playing cards or dice; others were of the blind-man’s-buff or grandmother’s-footsteps type. There seems to be have been an early version of Charades. And Snap-dragon, a favourite on Christmas Eve, involved trying to pick up raisins that had been set afloat in a bowl of flaming brandy.

Christmas dinner was as special an occasion before the nineteenth century as it was later, though the centrepiece would have been more likely a goose than a turkey, usually accompanied by other roast meats, mostly game, and fish fried or boiled. Plum pudding and mince pies were traditional fare too, though mince pies did actually contain minced meat until the Victorians reinvented them as entirely sweet.

But, again, Twelfth Night was as high a holiday as Christmas itself and was commemorated with its own special cake: a glittering, boozy fruitcake frosted with elaborate white sugar decorations. This, as Twelfth Night lost its importance over time, was somehow brought forward in the calendar to become what we today would recognise as the Christmas cake.

As the decades went on, and by the end of the eighteenth century, the old, drawn-out way of celebrating Christmas came to suit fewer and fewer people. Great country families, certainly, were no longer so ready to embrace the season’s considerable demands on their hospitality and charity.

More to the point, perhaps, ordinary people were increasingly living in towns and cities, where the old customs of the country couldn’t easily follow. And the demands of industrial labour were all-powerful. The 1833 Factory Act allowed just two full days off a year: Good Friday and Christmas Day. From that point on, Christmas was always going to be all about a more intimate, more intense and much more family-centred 25th December.

In that respect at least the Victorian Christmas set the modern template. Before that, the festive season signalled a much older, slower, more rural and essentially more feudal way of life; one that today is all but gone for good.

A history of the hamper

Hampers have long been a symbol of the special occasion. Whether star of the summer picnic or bringer-in of Christmas cheer, they stand in our minds for the finest fare and a sure touch of luxury.

Hampers also hint at the tastes of yesteryear. Pressed-meat pies, fruit preserves, spiced biscuits and candied fruit: their contents are typically old-fashioned delicacies, the kind of things our ancestors would have recognised and relished.

Hampers are certainly a tradition to be celebrated. But how far back does that tradition go? And where does it come from?

They say that hampers were brought over to the British Isles from Europe at the time of the Norman Conquest.

Early Norman hampers, however (or hanapers, as they were then called), had nothing to do with food. Though baskets, these were storage cases for valuables: drinking goblets, originally, but also gold coin and legal documents. There was in fact a so-called Clerk of the Hanaper who handled the paperwork and fees that passed through the English Chancery from the thirteenth century right the way up to 1832.

Baskets for food, of course, existed quite separately and had been around long before the Normans. Drum-shaped examples – woven from stripped willow, with oak handles and leather fastening-straps have been found on Iron Age excavation sites in the south of England.

But the Norman hanaper, no doubt due to its association with items of high worth, was destined to become a food basket of a particular type: one of distinctly superior quality.

The word started morphing into its modern equivalent from around the end of the fourteenth century; and that gradual change was mirrored by a slow shift in function – towards an exclusive association with food and drink.

Legendary diarist Samuel Pepys was around as the transition was happening – indeed captured something of it in an anecdote from 1666.

He tells the story of how in September of that year he found he was missing some books – books that he had made the mistake of stowing in a hamper that had then vanished. It was some time before the reason for the disappearance emerged. A colleague of Pepys at the Admiralty, where both men worked, had seen the hamper, assumed it to contain bottles of wine, and had it sent down to the cellar. Only later did the cellar records show one hamper too many. The matter was looked into and the books – to Pepys’s ‘great joy’ – were reunited with their owner.

As hampers slowly started being used just for food and drink, rather than for money and documents (and books), two subsidiary developments occurred.

First of all they came to be connected with gift-giving, especially at Christmas time, and not least as a way for wealthy employers to express their appreciation to servants and staff. This wasn’t just a British custom; to this day, some Spanish companies are contractually obliged to bestow the festive cesta once a year on their workforce.

Then, from the nineteenth century onwards, as travelling first by stagecoach, later by railway, and finally by motorcar become more popular, the picnic hamper became – again for the affluent – a means of being able to eat well, away from home, without recourse to dining establishments.

These travelling hampers could be extremely lavish affairs. Dickens has a scene in The Pickwick Papers (1836) in which the eponymous hero is met by a friend on the open road and treated to lunch from ‘a hamper of spacious dimensions’ the contents of which encompass everything from roast chicken to pigeon pie, and from potted veal and ham to lobsters – to say nothing of the bottle of wine per person.

The best picnic hampers carried not just food but the accoutrements of a full dining table. Edwardian examples, such as those supplied by the upmarket ‘portable furniture’ makers Drew and Sons, came kitted out not just with silver cutlery and china plates but with cocktail shakers, leather-wrapped thermoses, nesting tumblers and clear glass salt and pepper shakers.

Perhaps the ultimate hamper of modern times was made – by the esteemed London firm Asprey in the 1980s – for billionaire American businessman John Kluge (1914-2010). Intended to accompany the man’s hunting expeditions on his extensive Virginia estate, this horse-drawn wicker hamper was literally a wagon on wheels and carried, besides all the usual silver, china and crystal, battery-powered hot and cold boxes, a water pump and folding mahogany table and chairs.

Of all the wonderful hampers in history, though, our favourite has to be the one that arrived one morning in 1839 at Windsor Castle, addressed to the Queen.

According to a report in The Times, this ‘small hamper’, while it was lying in the coach-office, was heard to emit ‘a curious squeaking noise … resembling the stifled cries of a child.’ When it was opened, two guinea-pigs were discovered crouching underneath some hay accompanied by this note:

A Preasant of 2 Guinea Pigs to her Magesty from A little Boy 5 years old, that come in one day from Playing in the Street. Says Mother, I love the Queen because she is A Good queen. I wish to know ware she live, I would send her my two Pigs. The child would not Rest till he had sent the Queen the only Treasure he posses. He shed a tear over is Pigs, and told them they was Going ware they would have more plenty than he Could Have for them. He is Quite Happy at Parting with them. I am Afraid your Royal Highness will be displeased at a Poor woman taking the Liberty to send them to your Majesty. Your Majesty’s Most Humble Servant,

Oct. 9, 1839. Elizabeth Elridge

Heart-breakingly (and inexplicably) the gift was turned away by the Master of the Household; whereupon the animals were taken in by a local gentleman who Christened them Victoria and Albert and gave them a ‘spacious hutch’ in which to live out their days.

A gift of ‘treasure’ indeed.

Vinegar and woodwool: taste and tradition

When we teamed up with Sarson’s Vinegar back in 2018, it wasn’t to help them out with their packaging.

Among the lesser-known and, on the face of it, more surprising uses of woodwool is the role it plays in the traditional manufacture of British malt vinegar.

If you were to visit the Sarson’s factory in Manchester and take a peek into one of the wooden vats where the vinegar matures, you’d see bales of our woodwool in there along with it: it’s helping the natural chemistry along, and contributing towards that distinctive final flavour.

But how? It’s actually not rocket science; but it does make for a fascinating story – and not just because it really does explain why a splash of Sarson’s is pretty much everyone’s favourite condiment. It’s also because of what it says about the importance of tradition, and of traditional working methods, in the modern food industry.

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We were chatting the other day to Graham Houghton, Sarson’s technical manager. He was saying how an awful lot of the stuff that people put on their fish and chips, stuff that calls itself vinegar, isn’t really vinegar at all. He himself would call it ‘non-brewed condiment’ or ‘just acetic acid and colouring’.

What’s the difference? Some would say that acetic acid (in diluted form) is pretty much all vinegar is. The clue, it seems, lies in the name. The word vinegar derives from the Latin for sour wine. And historically vinegar, no less than wine, comes from an agricultural source.

The acetic acid in those ‘non-brewed condiments’ is a byproduct of the petrochemical industry. Acetic acid in proper vinegar, on the other hand, is created by the natural fermentation of an alcoholic foodstuff – whether that be made from grape or grain.

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They say that wine was discovered by accident: jars of grapes in the ancient Middle East are supposed to have started fermenting by themselves under the influence of native yeast. Some have speculated that the invention of vinegar was no less stumbled upon, the result of wine having been left too long in the open air, exposed to oxidizing bacteria.

Whatever the truth, it’s remarkable how little help from human hands the production of alcohol and vinegar ultimately needs. The chemistry unfolds on its own: it’s merely a question of marshalling and directing the forces of nature.

Which is not to say that vinegar makers in history haven’t explored all sorts of ways of accelerating and upscaling the process. And the Industrial Revolution brought with it the mechanical means to mass-produce almost any kind of goods on a scale never seen before.

All of which has left something of a tension in the world of food manufacturing: a tension between the demand for a product which is authentic, or historically recognisable, and the pressure to produce the same thing more quickly, more efficiently and in greater volume than would have been possible in an earlier age.

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It’s a tension that Sarson’s, who’ve been in business since 1794, are well-practised at negotiating. Their factory operations are a combination of the old and the new: time-honoured processes like mashing barley grains in hot water or cooling and fermenting the resulting ‘sweet wort’ (they don’t buy their alcohol in) are maintained in a production-line setting capable of rattling out millions of bottles a year.

Towards the end of the manufacturing process Sarson’s vinegar is scrupulously standardised to five per cent acid; and then it’s bottled and labelled by as slick a suite of automated machinery as you’ll see anywhere else. But other areas of the factory offer a glimpse into a much older world.

And nowhere more so than in the sight of the monumental wooden vats where the fermented wort matures, the alcohol slowly turning into acetic acid. These are the acetifiers.

Graham, our technical friend at Sarson’s, tells people never to mix up their acetifiers with their acetators. And the two things really couldn’t be more different. Acetators are modern stainless steel tanks for alcohol into which air bubbles are pumped by turbine power; those air bubbles trigger the oxidizing bacterial activity necessary for the creation of vinegar.

They’re textbook industrial age: very efficient, very fast.

Sarson’s wooden acetifiers are no less efficient; but they’re much more traditional – and nowhere near as fast. An industrial acetator can turn its contents into vinegar in a matter of hours. Sarson’s acetifiers take seven days.

That’s because the dynamic relationship between the alcohol, the acetifying bacteria and the oxygen on which the bacteria thrive is completely different – almost reversed. Rather than having air, in the form of tiny bubbles, rushed through the alcohol, the alcohol is made to trickle slowly down through an aereated structure.

Which is where the woodwool comes in.  The people at Sarson’s lay bales of larch woodwool – ‘as if you were laying straw for cattle’, as Graham describes it – across the wooden staging that sits inside the acetifier. It needs to be kept light and fluffy, rather than densely packed, so that both the alcohol and plenty of air can move freely through it, interacting with the bacterial presence that clings to the woodwool’s extensive surface area.

And it’s entirely because the alcohol is allowed to drip through the acetifier at its own pace – rather than being blasted through with air bubbles – that the process takes as long as it does.

Interestingly enough, the trickle-down method of acetifying alcohol was once upon a time considered impressively rapid. For centuries before the ‘quick’ process was developed, the only way of making vinegar was through surface fermentation: alcohol was simply left standing in a vessel exposed to the air so that, in time, a film of bacteria would develop and then begin to acetify the liquid beneath.

Tricks for helping this chemistry along – kick-starting it through the addition of a vinegar culture and introducing air holes into the vessel walls near to the liquid surface – were as close as craftsmen of yesteryear got to turning an essentially domestic operation into something more industrial (back in the eighteenth century, this ‘Orleans Method’ was the standard commercial process).

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The trickling method was a revolutionary advance on – and no doubt contributed towards the decline of – the age-old practice of surface fermentation. Compared to modern technology, however, the pace of its chemistry remains natural and unforced; and, thanks to it, Sarson’s vinegar has the time to take on a depth and roundedness of flavour impossible to achieve at high speed in stainless steel.

For that flavour is influenced not just by the larch woodwool, but by the Siberian pine vats that contain and contribute to the process.

These mighty tuns can be decades old. Unlike the absorbent woodwool, which becomes increasingly compressed over time and must therefore be changed every three to six months, the barrel interiors just get better and better with age.

It’s a kind of cask-maturing, not dissimilar to the use of oak barrels to age whisky, wine or indeed the celebrated balsamic vinegars of northern Italy. There’s a symbiotic, special relationship between these products and the wood they’re aged in which is one of the oldest gastronomic traditions of all.

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Sarson’s vinegar may not be a gourmet product as such, but it’s as faithful to the requirements of its own tradition as many a more artisanal name. It’s also – like much of what’s most admired in world cuisine – indisputably regional.

Malt vinegar is as British as John Barleycorn – springing from the same cereal source as so many of the island race’s beloved beers and whiskies, and no doubt instrumental in the establishment of fish and chips as the nation’s favourite dish.

There’s little demand for it from overseas, apparently; and the lion’s share of Sarson’s exports goes to ex-pats unable – wherever they are in the world – to find anything remotely similar.

Which makes it all the more fitting, perhaps, that this most British of staples should be made with woodwool grown so close to home.

Before they were supplied by us, Sarson’s used larch woodwool from the Vale of Evesham. Now it comes from the Leighton Estate in Wales (see our earlier blog, below). It was an important transition for the manufacturing team and Graham, as technical manager, made sure that he saw the new material for himself (he remembers ‘spending a day in the back of a van with a burly Welshman driving us around the forest looking at trees’) before happily committing to the choice.

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No one else in the UK (or, as far as we’ve heard, anywhere else) continues to use the woodwool method in the commercial production of malt vinegar. That’s interesting when you consider that Sarson’s is a bestselling brand.

In this case at least, it seems, taste and tradition add up to pretty much the same thing.

Packaging through the ages

With woodwool playing a prominent role in the current packaging revolution, we thought a look at packaging in earlier times might raise some interesting questions. As we discover, the solutions for tomorrow were often the solutions of yesterday.

Packaging has a long and colourful history. It’s been a feature of every culture in every age – the need to wrap things up, to organise, store, protect and preserve whatever has been held most valuable. It’s been a constant in the human story – and an illustration of each chapter’s talents and technologies.

Some of the most beautiful examples of prehistoric craftsmanship relate to early forms of packaging. The pumpkin-like gourds that were cultivated in some early African and American societies were wonderfully transformed – sometimes shaped with cords as they grew, then hollowed, dried and elaborately decorated – into canisters for food, water and medicines.

Whole arts and industries were to grow up around different types of packaging and container manufacture. Pottery, metalwork and glassmaking would all become artisanal ways of life, and for a long time were more important to the world than money.

Something like a barrel – that construction from natural resources of a vessel without which the storage and transportation of grain and liquids would not have been possible – represented a raft of painstakingly acquired abilities: from fashioning the grooved staves, to binding them in hoops, to introducing the necessary dimensional reinforcements and proofing against leakage.

Then there have been the creative breakthroughs – those historical moments of discovery that changed the material landscape. The invention of paper was one such. It is credited to China in the second century, where there was already a custom of using strips of bark from the mulberry tree to wrap food. It was found that boiling and pulping the bark fibres, then pressing and drying the result, produced the revolutionary new sheets.

The way in which the art of paper-making spread around the globe – first through central Asia, then into the Arab world, thence to Europe by the second millennium – shows how all communities take on good ideas, adopting and adapting them in the process. Thicker types of paper were in time developed before the first evidence of handmade cardboard boxes starts emerging (little ventilated cartons made for silkworm breeders in the south of France, used to carry the eggs) in the nineteenth century.

So far, so hand-crafted – and impressively so. But the world of packaging didn’t explode into its full power and diversity until the industrial revolution and the era of the factory machine. Now complicated fabrications could be churned out at scale – and make a much bigger impact on the kind of things, foods in particular, that ordinary people could trade and consume.

Cardboard boxes didn’t go mainstream until this point. Paper bags had come first and it was, in fact, a paper bag factory owner – Brooklyn-based Robert Gair – who in 1879 came up with the idea of pre-cut, pre-scored sheets of cardboard that could be folded into boxes (he was inspired by a factory mishap in which press rulers meant for creasing sheets of paper accidentally starting cutting them).

It’s during this period that woodwool enters the story. The idea of using finely shredded wool for stuffing and padding purposes (it was at first used mainly to fill mattresses, as an alternative to horsehair) could only become a reality with the right kind of mechanical technology behind it; and numerous ‘slivering machines’ were devised for the purpose in the middle part of the nineteenth century.

A report in Scientific American from 1886 gives us a detailed account of how one of these early machines worked. It consisted, essentially, of a drive shaft fitted with a fly-wheel, which was linked by a connecting rod to a ‘knife carrier’. This, the key element of the contraption, ‘slides in iron guides, and carries a set of peculiar knives arranged in such a way that the wood is cut in both the backward and forward motions of the knife carrier.’ The fly-wheel also controlled the inching forward of the wood blocks under the knives. With a four horsepower capacity, the machine could make upwards of 1,500 pounds of product in a ten-hour day.

It was just one of a constellation of clever machines that powered a veritable golden age of material manufacture. Corrugated cardboard dates from this period: pleated versions of stiff paper had first been used in Victorian England as a lining for top hats; but it took another New Yorker – one Albert L Jones – to patent and produce an industrial version for the express purpose of protectively packaging merchandise (especially glassware).

In 1876 the German chemist Herman Frasch patented a process for refining paraffin wax – and arguably took a first step towards the era of plastic packaging. Paper used for wrapping bread and other dry goods could now – for the first time on an industrial scale – be made waterproof. Waxed paper then, inexorably, gave way to moisture-proof cellophane (in the 1920s) which would, in turn, yield place to the twin dominance of polyethylene and polypropylene films in modern times.

Nowadays it’s not just food wrapping that comes in plastic form. From boxes to bottles, bags to bubble wrap, plastic has become the prevalent packaging material of our age – with the twenty-first century already having manufactured as much as had been ever made before it.

And now, after thousands of years of getting it ingeniously right, we’re realising we’ve almost gotten it fatally wrong. With plastics we’ve overshot the mark. What was wonderfully watertight, lightweight and durable turned out to be, simply, far too durable.

Focused on improving on the past, we took our eye off the future.

The next chapter in the history of packaging is going to be all about correcting the plastics mistake – whether that means developing biodegradable versions (for where we still need it) or replacing it with more natural, even historical alternatives (where we don’t).

Because history, it turns out, doesn’t always move in straight lines. And sometimes things that looked like the past can also start to look like the future.

The Leighton Estate Woodlands: Business and Biodiversity

Proven and reliable suppliers are key to any successful business. In this article the Great British Woodwool Company blog looks at its timber supplier, Leighton Estate Woodlands. With environmental responsibility and sustainability heading the agenda for both organisations, it is a partnership based on shared values and a determination to attain the highest standards.

Deep in the heart of the Welsh Marches, on the opposite side of the River Severn from mighty Powis Castle, lie the Leighton Estate Woodlands.

It’s a thousand or so acres of picturesque, tree-covered hillside. It’s also a busy commercial forest that keeps an assortment of neighbouring businesses supplied with timber from a truly diverse range of species. We were given an insight into the management of the Estate when we talked recently to its owners, Charles and Victoria Crewdson.

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It’s land, Victoria began by telling us, with a colourful backstory.

Originally, the woods were part of a great country estate, the historic pile of Leighton Hall in old Montgomeryshire. The house and grounds found a kind of fame half way through the nineteenth century when they were bought and spectacularly transformed by their new owner, entrepreneur John Naylor, into a fashionable Gothic mansion, complete with model farm (the only one of its kind in Wales).

But hard times and difficult decisions followed; and 1931 brought the sale that finally saw the Estate’s centuries-old woodlands separated – albeit as an entity intact – from their ancestral home.

Some of the Victorian trees, notably a grove of redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) planted in the 1850s, were later gifted to the Royal Forestry Society. They still stand today – surviving testament to Naylor’s pioneering spirit, and some of the oldest examples of their kind outside California.

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Leighton Estate Woodlands has always had its eye firmly on the future.

And it certainly, as Charles explains, earns its keep. Over forty species of tree are kept in manageable compartments – and a significant proportion of what gets chopped gets matched to local building and manufacturing demands. As well as many varieties of softwood there are ash, oak, larch, cherry, sycamore, even ancient redwoods (thinning to allow the remainder to grow and thrive). All have their markets (and all are neighbours: almost all clients are based no more than thirty miles away).

It’s an impressively bespoke business. Not only are specimens for felling hand-selected – by head forester Will Jones – but different sections of timber are targeted at different kinds of use. In the case of ash, for example, wood from the lower part of the tree is set aside for the most heavy-duty purposes (this, it seems, is where Irish hurley sticks come from); material from the middle might find new life as furniture; while the topmost parts are right for firewood.

But Leighton is well-qualified to meet specific, even specialist, supply requirements.

One of the Estate’s more exacting customers is nearby Great British Woodwool Ltd. Of the three species of larch that grow on the estate (European, hybrid and Japanese), it’s the European variety (larix decidua) which has been found to make by far the best substrate for acetobacter in malt vinegar production. And it takes someone with Will Jones’s experience of thirty years or more to pick out, every time, only the European species from a mixed stand.

As Charles describes the business of choosing and chopping the estate’s wood, it’s clear that Will’s expertise is indispensable to the whole, tailor-made model of delivery; as is his hands-on relationship with almost every tree. If one has been blown down by the wind, Will is called upon to read the pattern of potentially dangerous stresses and forces in its position so that he can, himself, dissect it safely. And all his cutting aims to maximise the wood’s usefulness – creating as much timber as possible out of every felling, as well as pieces of the right lengths and shapes to fit with the requirements of specific machinery in the workshop or factory where they’ll end up.

Sourcing our timber at The Leighton Estate Woodlands.
Not only are specimens for felling hand-selected – by head forester Will Jones – but different sections of timber are targeted at different kinds of use

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For all its success in meeting the multiple commercial demands made of it, the Leighton Estate Woodlands are simultaneously managed as an ecologically rich and balanced forest, the natural health of which is designed to be sustainable into the very long term. The range of what the woods can offer for sale, it seems, is a close reflection of their biodiversity.

This is no monocultural swathe of spruce, waiting for the next clear-felling. As Charles puts it, the estate presents a ‘constant relationship with nature’ – not a brutal exploitation of it. The arrangement of the woods’ trees into compartments (each just two to three acres in size), allows for an optimum juxtaposition of species, or mixtures of species, of different ages. And compartments may go entirely untouched for decades. Thus, when demand calls for a certain area of trees to be thinned, any impact on the larger area is essentially contained.

It’s in fact an ongoing, gradual process of adding and subtracting. The woodlands are regularly reinvigorated with new plantings (often experimentally: eucalyptus, for example, though not indigenous, has been found to thrive here); and thinning happens all the time, to give the surviving trees room to reach their full potential. What’s particularly interesting is how well the estate has perfected the art of dovetailing the thinning process to the timber needs of its clients: even the by-products of what Charles calls the ‘uneconomic thinnings’ (of very young trees, where the cost of the work is not recuperated by the sale of the wood) are sold for biomass.

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It’s an enterprise worth protecting; and keeping the woods safe from harm is a big priority for the owners.

The number one nuisance? Unquestionably the grey squirrel. Victoria has seen ten-year-old oaks quickly ruined by the things, damaged at the formative stage and bound thereafter to be stunted and disfigured.

Unlike so many of the trees that make up its habitat, the grey squirrel is one of those non-native introductions which Leighton is definitely not happy to have around. It’s simply because the environment lacks the natural predators to keep their numbers down – and, as Victoria says, ‘too much of one thing is not good: too much human is not good, too much squirrel is not good. It’s all got to be in balance’.

The Estate knows how fortunate it is to have been spared an import even more deadly – the larch disease phytophthora ramorum. Now affecting much of the UK, and with recent outbreaks reported as close to home as south Wales, the problem could, should it visit Leighton, not only see the end of some of the estate’s oldest and most majestic specimens, but, in addition, compromise the commercial viability of affected timber.

Every year the Forestry Commission flies over the forest to check that trees are budding properly; and Charles knows that, should anything amiss be spotted, he’ll have to act quickly.

The problem with any tree epidemic – and the team at Leighton is equally mindful of the threat posed by ash dieback (hymenoscyphus fraxineus) – is that, not only does it take out of commission a specific wood valued for specific commercial purposes (in the case of larch, for example, that’s not just the aforementioned woodwool but, because of its exceptional durability, outdoor fencing), but it subtracts from any woodland’s overall biodiversity.

With this in mind, and thinking of the future, Charles and Victoria would be pleased to see more stringent biosecurity standards in the UK; and cites the example of Australia for impressive practice.

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The new plantings with which the Leighton Estate Woodlands routinely experiment are designed to deliver natural diversity over the coming decades – whatever damage individual pathogens might do to particular species.

And if there’s a theme to which Charles and Victoria keep returning as we talk, it’s that this process of nurturing biodiversity – of continuing to plant imaginatively and creatively for the sake of the woods’ species variety – is a long game.

Charles points to the example of the grand fir (abies grandis), which has been out of favour. However, more recently, it has become popular for its utility and its vigorous growth. It was an innovation that took a perhaps surprising number of years to get off the ground in Britain. The Estate has stands that were planted over thirty years ago. It can’t always be known, in the beginning, which plantings will go on to thrive – and that’s an axiom set to become truer, Charles notes, in the face of long-term climate uncertainty. He has started trialling eucalyptus.

The existence of such time frames (Charles likens the work of this kind of forestry to farming ‘but spread over a hundred years, not a year’) explains why those in its service need long memories. Will Jones’ lifetime of experience is from this point of view invaluable. But it almost inevitably has to be an intergenerational affair. Charles talks about what’s worked and what hasn’t from the long-ago plantings of his father-in-law – just as he looks forward to his son doing the same thing in fifty years’ time.

And if Charles and Victoria’s son gets to sell timber to the next generation of local businesses in the same way that Leighton does now, then that’ll be thanks to the efforts of Charles, Victoria, Will and the rest of the dedicated team that came before them.