To most people Kim Wilde is still best known as the feather-fringed, pouty-lipped blonde who burst on to the pop scene in 1981 with the single Kids In America. Indeed, her musical repertoire hasn’t evolved much since then. Next month she is headlining a 1980s legends concert at the Wembley arena alongside the likes of Rick Astley and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
However, Wilde does have another, albeit less glamorous, passion - gardening. She has written books, hosted television shows, taken a two-year "plant design" course and won a gold medal for a garden she designed at the Chelsea Flower Show. And now she has gone into business.
The pop singer-turned-horticulturalist has thrown her star power behind a small Cheshire company that turns old car tyres into garden mulch and chips. She has taken a small stake in the company, called Dunweedin', but doesn’t take a salary. Instead, between concerts and hosting a show on Magic FM, she evangelises for the company, lending her name to promotions, penning articles in the trade press, and even opened its new plant.
For the five-year-old firm, which she got to know after a friend of hers asked it to sponsor a garden she had designed, the sprinkling of stardust has helped. "She helps us to promote the brand. She likes the idea, and it fits in with her whole ethos," said Bob Jones, a co-founder of Dunweedin'. "It’s a personal thing for her."
Using dirty old tyres as garden ornamentation isn’t as odd as it sounds. The idea for the company came to Jones after the government banned the dumping of tyres in landfill in 2003. Dumping shredded tyres was outlawed three years later.
Every year Britain's motorists discard about 50m tyres - enough to stretch from London to Sydney. They do not decompose. And with landfill no longer an option, companies had to look at new ways of dealing with the mountains of rubber.
As a director of a small engineering firm that designed waste-management plants for companies around Cheshire, Jones saw an opportunity. Processed rubber "crumb" has long been used for applications such as the cushioning layer under Astroturf, playground surfaces and artificial running tracks. The single most common use for old tyres, accounting for more than a third of them, is to chop them into chips that can be used as fuel for cement factories.
Making the leap to coloured garden chips wasn’t difficult. "We were busy building tyre-recycling plants for a number of clients who were also asking for our help with marketing of the end products," said Jones. "However, the existing market for these recycled materials was limited and already fairly saturated, so we felt there was a real opportunity to develop new products if we could find something that could be sold in large volumes."
Dunweedin' receives tyres from local collectors, who pick them up from garages and chains such as Kwik Fit. At Middlewich in Cheshire, 1.5m a year are put through a patented process that shreds them to create chips, mulch or crumb. They are then sent to a second facility down the road in Holmes Chapel, where they are coloured using recycled water-based paints and packaged for sale in retail outlets, including B&Q and Focus DIY. The company has also developed crumb that can be sprinkled over lawns to increase soil aeration.
The idea of having shredded car tyres spread over your garden may not sound appealing, but Jones said it had a few advantages over wood bark, stones or other traditional options. It is inert and absorbs no water. It also acts as a weed suppressant - hence the Dunweedin’ name. In theory, it never needs to be replaced, and the variety of colours can add an aesthetic that brown wood bark cannot. Dunweedin' could have skipped the colouring but decided that chunks of black rubber weren't "attractive enough to be a commercially viable product".
The company's products have been on the market for only two years, but Jones said that Dunweedin', which employs about 30 people, is profitable and growing. Indeed, next month it will increase production when a new plant comes online. PPP, a tyre recycler in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, will complete construction of the site after it received a £50,000 loan from Michelin under a small-businesses loan scheme that the French giant introduced in the UK in 2003. PPP will take truck tyres from a nearby Michelin plant and process them into mulch and chips under licence to Dunweedin’.
For Michelin, the scheme falls under a company-wide venture to reduce energy consumption across its plants by a fifth and cut industrial waste to zero. The tyres not taken by PPP’s Ballymena plant will be sent to Charles Lawrence International, which expects to convert 6,000 tonnes of waste rubber a year into surfaces for children’s playgrounds and sports arenas.
Michelin also has plans to fit a pair of giant wind turbines to the Ballymena plant. The decision was taken after a similar scheme at its Dundee plant, where two turbines provide a third of its power, slashed its energy bills. The measures point to a larger shift in an industry long associated with environmental destruction and waste.
For Dunweedin’, the new laws on tyre disposal mean it will never be short of raw materials. And with the plant at Ballymena set to begin chopping up rubber in the next few weeks, it will soon have a lot more product to recycle - something that Wilde will be able to help with.
Jones is hoping that she will put in an appearance at next month’s Chelsea Flower Show, where the company will sponsor a few displays. "We've got a few things up our sleeve," he said. "We try not to call on her too much, and it is not easy to get time in her diary. She still tours, you know."