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16 February 2004
The Herald
Everyone needs some starch in their diet

IT is incumbent on me to declare an interest here: I get unreasonably mad at these huge blocks of white foam which are used to package everything which arrives on the doorstep especially when they break apart and scatter little, uncatchable beads of polystyrene all over the carpet.
And I get positively incandescent at the indiscriminate use of those annoying foam nuggets which pour out of the most innocuous-looking parcel and take refuge behind the sofa.
But instead of getting mad, manufacturer Alan Thornton is actually doing something about it and at the same time advancing the hunt for the Holy Grail of the packaging industry.
He has just received a 500,000 award from the Scottish Executive to develop a starch-based alternative to foam packaging a business worth 4bn a year in Europe alone which will biodegrade after use.
"When you throw away the packaging from your kitchen appliance, it goes to landfill and will lie there for more than 100 years," said Thornton at the headquarters of his latest company, Caledonian Ferguson Timpson, at Hillington in Glasgow.
"With the starch-based packaging, you will be able to toss it on to the back lawn and the rain will make it completely disappear by the morning."
Does that sound smart? Well, the Navy thinks so. It is interested in Thornton's ideas on the grounds that the massive amount of packaging on a modern warship or submarine could once again be heaved over the side to naturally biodegrade.
Fast food giants, he believes, would fall over themselves for a solution to the packaging detritus which swamps cities across the UK every evening. Already Marks & Spencer has asked to be involved in the development programme.
"Starch-based packaging is already a reality," said Thornton. "We are producing it in flat sheets for the electronics industry, but is doesn't look as good or perform as well as polystyrene.
"The trick for us will be to take a starch slurry and make it into a bead, like polystyrene granules. Then it could be compressed into useable blocks and moulded into packaging shapes.
"We are working with Strathclyde university and my own specialist team here. The project is likely to take about 18 months, and is being encouraged by the European Union which, like the executive, has issues with the environmental impact of the packaging industry."
Thornton is more than a man with an idea. He has a track record in Scotland which is equalled by an increasingly small band of manufacturers.
With his father, he founded Thor Ceramics, a Clydebank-based company which made specialist ceramic tubes through which molten steel could be poured greatly reducing wastage. That was in 1980.
In 1989, it was taken over by a German company, and Thornton remained as managing director. Then it was acquired anew by an Austrian group, which dispensed with Thornton's services. "I was unemployed and probably unemployable," he said. "I had the choice of being idle or buying another company."
With the help of contacts in the enterprise network he is a former chairman of Scottish Enterprise Dumbarton he identified Caledonian Industries, which was making packaging for the telecoms industry. Not long after, Ernst & Young suggested he have a look at Ferguson Timpson, on the same industrial estate, which was making thermoplastics for the oil and aerospace industries. He bought them both for 5m, with assistance from his former bankers, Bank of Scotland. He made immediate efficiencies by bringing them together on one site, introducing three-shift working, and reducing Caledonian's reliance on packaging alone. It now makes machine seals and back-up rings for oil pipeline safety; engineering foams for electronics components; acoustic insulation for aerospace; and foams, seals, and gaskets for mobile phones.
All mobiles made in the UK contain a gasket behind the screen which is made by Caledonian Ferguson Timpson.
Thornton said the company had a turnover in the year to April 2003 of 5m, with a profit of 250,000 figures which he expects to be similar this year and employs 80 skilled workers. He is sole owner.
The new biodegradable foam will be made by a new company, Caledonian Biosystems, using super-critical fluid technology and existing moulding machinery. Thornton is aware of the limitations of his manufacturing capability and has taken the first steps towards licensing deals with companies in the Czech Republic and Denmark.
He said: "The foam will withstand damp, but will dissolve if soaked. But then, the product inside would be destroyed anyway."
RON CLARK February 16 2004

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