Dagenham recycling plant giving ex-offenders a helping hand

PUBLISHED: 08:00 17 September 2014

(L-R)  Operations manager Gerry Martin and reformed offender Chris Nelson.  Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

(L-R) Operations manager Gerry Martin and reformed offender Chris Nelson. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson


Prison life isn’t easy, and rightly so.

Closed Loop recycling plant in Dagenham.
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson Closed Loop recycling plant in Dagenham. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

But in many cases, freedom can be as tough as the time spent behind bars.

About 90,000 people are released from prison every year in the UK, but 60 per cent go on to re-offend within two years.

One of the biggest challenges ex-offenders face is finding a job – but a groundbreaking recycling plant in Dagenham is helping with the transition.

Closed Loop, based in Choats Road, is the world’s first recycling plant to wash and “super clean” plastic bottles that would otherwise have been exported or used for landfill, and turn them back into food industry grade material meeting European and American standards.

Reformed offender Chris Nelson.  Photo: Arnaud Stephenson Reformed offender Chris Nelson. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Having linked up with social enterprise Blue Sky six months ago, the plant now employs four ex-offenders full-time on its production line.

“We help them reintegrate into society and get their chins off their chests,” said head of operations Gerry Martin. “We encourage and don’t discriminate.

“It can actually be quite a harsh environment to work in, but a lot of these guys have been looking for a job for a while.

“Even in this day and age we still need humans to make sure only the correct materials go through the process.”

Closed Loop. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson Closed Loop. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Opened in September 2008, the plant processes 65,000 tonnes of plastic a year – the equivalent of five million plastic bottles a day.

Since 2005 Blue Sky has employed 950 ex-cons on paid six-month contracts with household names like Virgin Active and Deloitte.

Head of fundraising Carwyn Gravell told the Post the scheme is often the difference between rehabilitation and re-offending for many former cons.

“It’s all about giving these people a second chance and an opportunity in life,” he said.

Chris Nelson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson Chris Nelson Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

“It’s extremely tough for ex-offenders, so we turned the situation on its head and only employ people with a criminal record.

“We expect a lot from them, just like any other company would, but we offer them a lot of support and help in moving on.”

One-time warehouse mechanic Christopher Nelson is set to become the first Blue Sky worker to be given a full-time contract with Closed Loop, after impressing bosses with his hard work and commitment.

The dad-of-two, of Romford, served a six-week term in Pentonville in early 2012, before ending up on the dole for more than two years.

Checking the production line to make sure all bottles are correctly washed, Christopher is relishing life on the outside once more, as he continues to turn his life around.

“I’m really enjoying the work and learning new things,” he said.

“Every day I regret what I’ve done, so I’m really grateful to Blue Sky and Closed Loop for giving me this opportunity.

“When I came out it was really tough. All of the job applications were asking if I had a criminal record and after that they didn’t want to know – it was always the same old story.”

Christopher was given a suspended jail sentence and forced to carry out 220 hours of community service for common assault in late 2011, but after struggling with his parole officer he went on the run.

Homeless and living in friends’ hallways and on sofas, it wasn’t long before police caught up with him and he found himself behind bars.

“I never want to go back there,” he added. “I got along with my cell-mate and just kept my head down really, but it really wasn’t nice being locked up for 22-and-a-half hours a day. I’m now just focusing on my job and providing for my family.”

Read more:

‘It began with a dream’ — Boxing academy founders tell how they turned from crime to help Barking and Dagenham youths
Business Secretary Vince Cable opens pioneering food waste plant in Dagenham

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