Ep 5: Environmental services and rubbish collection in Weston

Towens is a recycling, waste management, haulage and environmental services business that’s been in the family for over 30 years. We meet Director John Telling, who talks to us about this successful business, which employs 135 staff in the heart of Weston.

John Telling Super Weston podcast cover image

Towens currently recycles a staggering 94% of the waste they handle. Discover how they do this, as well as some of the interesting projects the company has been involved in, from helping clear Weston Marine Lake, to supporting BBC1’S DIY SOS with a project in the Bournville housing estate. 

To listen to the full conversation between John Telling and Becky Walsh, click on the podcast below:

Tell us a little bit about how Towens started.

The company was started by Andy Towens about 30 years ago and he’s been in the Waste Management business for 50 years now. He retired about four or five years ago, and his son, Nick and me are now taking the business forward to its next level of development.

The vast majority of people have been working for us for a good 10 years, some as long as 30 years, and we feel a little bit like a family here. People come here because they’ve got friends here, they enjoy it. You’ve probably seen a couple of the dogs that we have running around – it’s a home from home for a lot of people.


Towens team shot, Weston-super-Mare
Towens staff team shot

Tell us a little bit about the day to day running of the business and about waste management.

Our job is to take everything that gets given to us as waste and try and do as much as possible with it that isn’t wasteful. We sort through everything that comes to us either in a skip on the back of a builder’s lorry, or on one of our own lorries, and we’ve got a processing facility here that has a whole load of machines and people, and we separate everything down.

Say you had a skip at home and you’ve cleared out your garage, there’ll be wood, plastic, metal, glass, there might be some polystyrene, plaster board etc – all of that gets separated. Most of it we can either sell on, or sometimes you have to give it away for free, but at least you can get it reused. We try to put as little as possible into landfill and we currently recycle just over 94% of everything that comes in.

I think most of us most of the things in this office are from other people’s skips – the filing cabinets, the chairs…

Towens waste management - refuse skip
Towens skip

How has the business evolved – what have been the key milestones in your growth over the past 30 years? 

We’ve got about 135 staff at the moment, and that’s a mixture of people who are driving lorries, who work in the office, people who are doing the actual sorting of the waste itself. We’ve got two other branches as well – one just outside of Bridgwater in Middlezoy and another one up near Bath in Clutton doing similar sorts of things, but on a smaller scale.

What are some of the projects that you have been involved in locally that people might find interesting or surprising?

For Weston we’ve done all sorts of things – last year we helped the council by pulling the sluice gates out so they could empty the marine lake. The gates were stuck and rusted and before they could get in the big sucking machine, they had to take all the muck out, they needed to be able to get the water out. 

Building Contractors use us to either take their rubbish away, or they bring it to us. So pretty much anyone that’s had a building contract on their house in Weston has probably had the waste from it come to our site, because we’re right in the middle of town. Local people tend to use us. 

We do some of the bigger projects – we work on Hinkley Point, so most of the mixed waste comes to us in the Middlezoy site, we do all the recycling for them there. We’ve done some work with Gravity, which is hopefully going to be the big development near Bridgwater as well. 

Lots of local buildings, schools and NHS facilities – our skips are everywhere, our people are everywhere.

Digger at Towens
Towens digger

What have been some of the biggest challenges that you’ve come across?

The biggest challenges are when the market shifts, and you get changes in how you’re able to dispose of things. We went through a period where the power stations that used to take wood for fuel had plenty, because they bought a whole load of it for Scandinavia during COVID, then didn’t need any more. So we had huge piles of wood, and you have to find other things to do with it. 

Recently the government changed the legislation for how you recycle furniture, so all the soft furnishings like cushions and things in sofas and chairs, they now can’t be taken to landfill, so they have to be shredded up and taken to a specialist incineration facility. 

Dealing with the shifts in how our market moves, those are the biggest challenges, and always finding great people, because you are only as good as having the right people. For us, it’s about finding people that will fit in with our team, because lots of people have been here for a while. It is a culture that you have to be comfortable with, rubbing in along with everyone and getting stuck in and helping out and getting to know people. It’s noisy sometimes, it’s quiet sometimes, it’s not the same every day, so you’ve got to want variety and want social engagement at work. 

You really want people who have the ‘can do’ attitude. It’s about just choosing people with the right personality and the right attitude. You can teach them everything they need to know.

Lorry at Towens
Towens lorry

What other fun projects have you got involved with locally?

The most high profile one is where we provided the waste management for DIY SOS, when they did a house on the Bournville. As always, there’s really sad stories from what’s happened to the families and the situations they’re in, but all of the contractors have roofers and window guys and plasterers and painters and all the local attractions got involved. That was great fun to see our skips out there, and to pop along and see how it went at the end.

We work with some of the local schools. In terms of recruitment, we have a whole variety of jobs, so we can have people who have very low academic qualifications, we have roles for them, as well as people who’ve come from Weston College who are smart engineers because we have those types of opportunities as well.

We get involved with Beach Rugby (festival), which is a great fun day when the weather’s nice.

It really gives people who are local, opportunities to be able to stay here.

A lot of our people cycle here. They’re no more than 15 minutes or 20 minutes away and even the lorry drivers are cycling – they drive their lorry all day, then cycle home again.

In terms of your work life balance and your fitness that’s a massive bonus.

Weston is a great place for cycling because most of it is flat, but if you want to find a hill, there’s plenty of hills.

I think Weston is a hugely under-appreciated town, because it’s got the most amazing natural beauty, you’ve got woods, you’ve got beaches, you’ve got walks, you’ve got the sea. You can see the Quantocks, you can see the Mendips and you’ve got a mainline train station. You could be going out to Bristol or Taunton or London or wherever you want to get to really easily, it’s just a super place to live.

Cycling in Weston
Cycling in Weston, credit Paul Blakemore

You don’t have an accent, where did you come from? 

I was born and grew up in Congresbury, just down the road, and left to go to university, then went to work in London and then America for a while, then came back to London, and now I’m back in the South West. 

What is coming up for you as a business over the next year?

We just finished building a recycled aggregates plant in Westonzoyland, which is near Middlezoy, just outside Bridgwater. It takes materials – predominantly soil – that would otherwise have gone into a landfill, and it separates it through a whole variety of processes, kind of like a massive sieve, into recycled sand, and recycled stone. We’re really pleased with the way it’s come out – the quality of those materials is fantastic.

That means that anyone who doesn’t want to use brand new virgin materials from a quarry, for example, can get locally-produced recycled sand and stone for their construction projects, and they can get it from us.

You pour all the soil in one end, and it shakes it all up a bit to separate it, then it goes through a washing process to take the sand out, then the stones go through various screeners of different sizes, so different sized stones pop out and get stuck into shoots down the end and then it ends up as a clay, because soil is clay plus stone plus sand and water. It’s a closed loop system, so all the water just goes round and round in the pot.

This sounds fantastic, when I think about places like Cheddar, it means that perhaps we won’t need to delve into the earth and some of our natural beauty sites.

That is true, and more and more construction projects require a percentage of recycled materials in them. So we’re able to help people achieve the percentages that they’re looking for.

A digger at Towens
A digger at Towens

What do you see as the key economic opportunities for Weston in the next 5 years? 

It’s a big question and I think there’s huge opportunities that will be coming from the continued economic activity in places like Hinkley and Gravity.

I think Weston itself is still a relatively inexpensive place to be and to live, so for people who maybe have moved from London or Bristol, they can get fabulous places to live in Weston. All the things I just described, the fresh air and the great schools etc. 

I think Weston needs to really capitalise on it being a fabulous place to live in and work in, as well as to come and visit. I think if it can tip the balance from being ‘we’re a seaside tourist town’ to being a place where people love to live and love to work, that’s what it’s got to try and do.

Cycling around Weston Marine Lake
Cycling around Weston Marine Lake

We can really clearly see this from all our podcast interviews – this is the story that has been echoed. What’s an interesting fact that people outside of Weston may not know about?  

When I was living in Congresbury, Somerset Cricket Club used to come to Weston for a little annual festival and they used to play games there. That was in the days when you had Ian Botham, Joel Garner and Viv Richards playing for them and they used to play in Clarence Park

It was the tiniest ground and you’d just sit by the rope, and these global superstars of cricket would be just there signing autographs! Joe Garner was about 18 foot tall, complete monsters of the game. I’ll never forget taking the bus into Weston walking down to Clarence Park, it was a fabulous experience.

Unbelievable! I see quite a lot of different groups go down to Clarence Park and play cricket, I bet they have no idea of that history. What are your favourite places to eat and drink in Weston? Where do you like hanging out?

I’m lucky enough to live up on the hillside on South Road with a great view of the beach and the bay, so the answer is going to be places I can walk to. I think the best pub is The Criterion, then just past that is Il Michelangelo which is a super Italian. 

If you fancy something different, walk into town and go to Demetri’s Taverna for a bit of Greek.

Il Michelangelo, Weston-super-Mare

What do you do for fun when you’re not working?

I’m a bit of a gym freak, actually. You can’t walk directly across to it, but Nuffield is only about 80 yards away from here. I’m a get-up-early-and-go sort of person – I do 630am classes, a spot of cycling, a bit of golf to unwind.

Tell us about your favourite shop in Weston.

Waitrose, and Majestic is right behind Waitrose – two good places nearby.

What’s the most underrated thing about Weston you wish people would ‘get’ because you love it?

I think it’s the natural beauty of the place, Weston is referred to as Weston-super-mud, but actually, the way the tide comes in and out, it’s part of the attraction, because it’s never the same, so when it’s in it looks like it’s the south of France. When it’s out, it looks like a dream, and the fun thing of course is watching people have less judgement wandering out and thinking oh my goodness, what am I doing up to my knees in the slightly muddy bit, but thankfully the lifeboat guys are pretty good at yanking them out.

Weston super Mare promenade
Weston-super-Mare promenade, credit Paul Blakemore

Where can people find out more about Towens? 

The website is best, it shows all the people in the business, it shows the dogs that work here (or sleep the most).

If you want to come by and have a look and see how we recycle things, waste doesn’t get wasted out here.

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