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Transforming river waste into beauty: Sheffield brand aims to clean up

Former students have converted stacks of river rubbish into colourful, eco-friendly plant pots to highlight the need to care for city’s waterways.

A Flod plant pot
Oscar Keenan

A set of Sheffield graduates are pressing on with a business they launched to help tackle the litter strewn across the city’s rivers.

Since founding Flod in 2021, the four have transformed over 50kg of waste plastic and glass into more than 100 multi-coloured plant pots, while donating a share of the profits to charity.

Their manufacturing techniques have involved panini makers, microwaves, and a homemade glass crusher, but the Flod team now want to expand while continuing to help improve Sheffield’s waterways.

Co-founder Oscar Keenan tells Now Then that Flod was formed from a desire to ensure a university business project had practical impact. As well as assembling a production line across his spare room and garden, the quartet have pitched in with conservation groups to recover riverside litter.

Recovered litter at Kelham Island
Don Catchment Rivers Trust

Keenan, Dominic Lewis and Max Sudbury were Product Design students at Sheffield Hallam University, while Tommy Linnett was on a Marketing course. With a £500 budget, they relied on resourcefulness, hence the use of a second-hand panini press to process HDPE plastic from milk bottle tops, chemical containers, and other debris.

“It’s a reliable piece of kit,” says Keenan with a chuckle. “It never gets hot enough to burn the plastic, so you don’t release toxic fumes or anything. It just makes it more malleable.”

Reshaped rubbish can determine the colour of pot bases: one haul of abandoned hula hoops resulted in a uniform blue batch. The pots’ top section combines recovered glass and Jesmonite, a water-based resin billed as an eco-friendly material.

Having graduated in the spring, Flod’s founders can no longer borrow university facilities so their next ambition is securing premises to enable increased production. Keenan says the longer-term goal is to make Flod – which means “river” in Middle English” – a full-time operation, as well as expanding the products and materials involved.

The pots currently sell at £37, but Keenan says growing the business would bring prices down. While each pot takes two hours to make, he is emphatic in praising the time and commitment from conservation volunteers.

“It's quite an expensive pot,” he says. “But I think the thought and effort that's gone into it really makes it stand out.”

Flod send 5% of each sale to the Don Catchment Rivers Trust (DCRT), a charity that manages rivers across South Yorkshire. Community Engagement Officer Sally Hyslop tells Now Then that it was “fantastic” that DCRT groups had recently been finding less litter, and that time spent outside during pandemic restrictions may have encouraged people to value green space more.

“If a space looks neglected and unloved, there will always be more litter there,” she adds. “We’ve found that the more litter-picking groups are visible, the more litter picking happens [and] the cleaner areas become.”

Flod plant pots
Oscar Keenan

Hyslop says pollution in local rivers has improved since the days of widespread heavy industry, but there is still “a big pollution problem” alongside fly-tipping of building materials, garden waste, and household items.

“We want these spaces to be really valued by the community for everything they offer,” she continues. “Whether that's natural heritage, built heritage, the industrial heritage in Sheffield – they're amazing spaces to explore.”

Hyslop says support from individuals and businesses makes a “massive” difference to DCRT, adding that collaborating with Flod had been “brilliant”.

“They’ve been on quite a few of our [litter] picks,” she said. “It's so nice to see things [...] being recycled locally and turned into something really positive.”

Repairing damage done to rivers is one thing, but what’s being done to stop rubbish being dumped in the first place?

Sheffield Green Party Councillor Douglas Johnson says there can be confusion over where responsibility lies, because different stretches of water have different owners, meaning rivers and banks are not usually in local councils’ remit.

“The Environment Agency has some supervisory powers,” he adds. “But it's normally involved with major instances of dumping, not general litter clearance. Sadly, there are some real hotspots where tradespeople or whoever will routinely dump stuff in rivers. I was looking at a spot on the River Don recently where [...] it's evident there’s routine and widespread dumping of building rubbish.”

Refuse from the street can also end up in rivers due to wind or rain. But Cllr Johnson says years of government austerity have seen council services reduced, with most Sheffield streets now swept once every 17 weeks, rather than every four.

“The Council could put more resources into that if it cut something else,” he adds. “Of course, there isn't a lot left to cut.”

At the time of writing, a page on Sheffield City Council’s website featured a “Sheffield Waterways Strategy”, with listed goals including regeneration and protecting wildlife. The strategy document, published in 2014, is attached to a deadline of 2022 for making rivers “central to Sheffield being an attractive, competitive and sustainable city”. Now Then approached Sheffield City Council for comment.

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