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Tomra – safe and green
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Tomra – safe and green

| Text: Björn Lindahl Photo: Thomas Haugersveen

The global production of bottles, cans and other drink containers tops 800 billion. Half of them end up on landfills. Recycling all this would save large amounts of energy, and cut CO2 emissions.

The Nordic countries, Germany, the Netherlands and some US states have all introduced a refund system for recycling drink containers. But shops often struggle to cope with all the empty bottles and cans. Norwegian brothers Petter and Tore Planke spotted this business opportunity 37 years ago. They invented the reverse vending machine, and today Tomra is the world's leading producer of machines for handling returned drink containers.

"You feel like you're doing something meaningful. We don't work in the weapons industry, we're "the good guys"," says Githa Brusch Trapnes, human resources manager at Tomra Systems' factory in Lier outside Oslo.

A safe work place

She also makes sure Tomra is not only a green work place, but a safe one.
"Tomra is a safe business. There is not much here which could damage you. Our main problem is that the machines are rather tall, making it a bit hard working on the upper parts. We've installed a lot of lifting tools to make things easier," she says.

She shows us around the plant in Lier, some 40 kilometres south-west of Oslo. On the outside you see depressingly grey 70s architecture. Inside, however, there is a warm, comfortable atmosphere. Reverse vending machines in various stages of production are dotted around the place. There are no conveyor belts; the machines are moved on fork lift trucks to the various production stations.

Tomra's machines have three functions. They recognise the type of bottles and cans that are fed into them, they sort them and compress plastic bottles and aluminium cans to save space. The machine can see whether a bottle or a can is eligible for a refund, and will sort white glass from coloured.

Return vending machine rush

When a new country introduce a refund system, the demand for reverse vending machines shoots up. When Germany introduced their system in 2006, Tomra installed 8,800 reverse vending machines. The Lier plant can build 400-2000 machines a month, and so far Tomra has produced more than 70,000 of them.

A few days before our visit, Tomra's new CEO Stefan Ranstrand presented surprisingly solid third quarter results. But he also presented some other figures:

"So far our machines have secured the recycling of 22,504,998,327 cans and bottles. This, together with our other activities, means a reduction in CO2 emissions of ten million tonnes. That is more than 15 percent of Norway's total emissions," Stefan Ranstrand said.

More waste per person

Tomra also works on ways to save electricity, and inside the factory there are many stations for recycling various production waste.

"Tomra will in the long run be able to capitalise on strong macro trends that are working in favour of the recycling industry. This includes such factors as increasing per capita waste levels, higher energy prices, stricter waste recycling regulations, greater environmental awareness and corporate responsibility initiatives, and the growing view that used materials are in fact valuable resources rather than waste," the annual report states.

"We are probably better at recycling than most Norwegians, at home, too," says Elisabeth Sandvik, who has worked for Tomra for 13 years. She is now responsible for the end control of the machines.

"The most common mistake is that something is forgotten during the assembling process. It is my job to find out what and put it in place," she says.

She thinks Tomra is a good work place.

"The company has made me feel safe, and work is varied here. One minute I work up high, the next I'm down low," she says.

Her colleague Knut Hansen agrees.

"There's not much around here that can damage you. It is clean, no noise and no unpleasant odours," he says.

Knut Hansen used to run a shop which did not do very well, before he got his job with Tomra two years ago.

"I haven't regretted it. Work is challenging because the machines keep developing. When I was young we'd put all kinds of funny containers into the machines. That wouldn't work today," he says.

Tomra's Code of Conduct

"Tomra maintains high standards for social and environmental performance.  We consistently follow these high standards irrespective of instances where less stringent national regulations exist.  We are committed to minimizing the impact of our businesses on the environment with methods that are socially responsible and eco-efficiently sound.  Our objective is to ensure that the positive environmental impacts created by Tomra’s operations are greater than the negative impacts."

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