I found my fortune in a plastic cup

The idea of setting up a pencil firm sounds a little behind the times. And making them from plastic cups sounds just plain daft. Yet that’s exactly what Edward Douglas Miller set out to do in 1996…

In the age of email and word processing, the idea of setting up a pencil firm sounds a little behind the times. And deciding to make them from plastic cups sounds just plain daft.

Yet that's exactly what Edward Douglas Miller set out to do in 1996, after several years working for SaveWood, a plastic recycling company. "Using things once and then chucking them in a landfill just didn't make sense to me. So the idea was to take an everyday item like a plastic cup from an office and turn it back into a product that could be used in the office."

There was one small problem no one was prepared to invest in a firm making pencils. So, working out of a rented bedsit in Fulham, Scottish-born Miller played around with a plastic-processing machine he'd bought after selling shares in SaveWood, looking at ways to change the make up of the plastic he fed into it. "It wasn't specifically designed to do this job. So we had to modify and re-engineer it to process recycled materials," he says. It took over a year to get the engineering and material side of the manufacturing processing right, by which time the final cost had risen to around £20,000.

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That left Miller short of funds to build a dedicated factory. So he went to the engineering firm in Stroud that had made the machine and struck a deal that would save him on rent. "I said: if I get this thing off the ground, I'll buy more machinery from you'." They let him keep his machine in their lab, as long as they could use it in demonstrations to potential customers. By 1998, he'd perfected and patented the manufacturing process, and had even got a recycling scheme called Save a cup' to deliver him cups straight from businesses.

From there, it was relatively easy to persuade these businesses to buy the pencils he produced from their recycled plastic cups. But "it was a lot of hard work to make very little money". In fact, his company, Remarkable, made a loss of £15,000 in the first year. Things rapidly began to change though, when in 1998, Miller's pencil was nominated at the National Recycling Awards as the recycled product of the year. Sales rose to £120,000 in 1999, when the Design Council launched a campaign to identify 2,000 pioneering firms for the millennium, one of which would be chosen to go to the Millennium Dome and demonstrate their product. Remarkable won and suddenly had to ramp up production. "We made 3.75 million pencils for the Dome, and sold them to people off the stand. From that event, we made enough money to move into a proper factory and create what is now a multi-million pound business."

Indeed, after moving to a dedicated 30,000 square foot facility in Worcester in 2004, Remarkable now turns over £3.5m, transforming everything from plastic cups and car tyres into mousepads, erasers and any other type of stationery you can think of. "People thought it was crazy to develop the pencil. But it's become a marketing tool for firms who go to the trouble of recycling. That it is a product they can then go on to use is an added bonus."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.