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Plastic for parkas puts Cheltenham on to a winner

With no crowds at the Cheltenham Festival this year, the clean-up operation at the end of each day should be a relatively easy task.

But in other years, more than 250,000 people usually attend the four-day fixture – and with plenty enjoying a drink or two along the way, those beverages result in a mound of plastic cups which could be an environmental nightmare.

Step forward Reborn, a company which ‘upcycles’ and creates fabrics from plastic – and has been working with Cheltenham’s owner Jockey Club Racecourses since 2018 as the venue strives to lessen its environmental impact.

Reborn, founded by Zak Johnson, turns that plastic waste into fabric, which is then used to make uniforms for JCR staff – with 50 plastic cups being turned into a parka or raincoat.

The Guinness Village is a fixture at the Festival in normal times
The Guinness Village is a fixture at the Festival in normal times (Tim Goode/PA)

Johnson said: “We take the plastic cups they use at Cheltenham – so for the Festival there’s a million plastic cups used, which is roughly six tonnes of plastic, a pretty hefty amount over the four days.

“They use a leaf blower at the end to push all those cups into piles and then they bag them up. We work with the waste management company, so we take those cups away (from them) to our facility in Buckinghamshire, and those cups are shredded and put in a sink float tank – so they are washed effectively in layman’s terms.

“They are then put through an extrusion machine, which turns it to liquid – and that liquid we turn into pellet.

“You can make many things from the pellet – it can go into a textile mill and create textiles, or it can be used in hard surfaces, such as tables, depending on what we want to turn it into. That pellet is the perfect start for the raw form of recycled plastic.

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“We work with a factory in Leeds, and one in Huddersfield as well – they are our main locations for textiles.”

Last year's Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo, with groom Paul Roche wearing a Reborn jacket
Last year’s Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo, with his groom wearing a Reborn jacket (Jacob King/PA)

Reborn has created 30,000 metres of fabric from Festival waste, with 100% of plastic from Cheltenham recycled into uniforms, and Johnson is full of praise for the track’s enthusiasm for more sustainable practices.

He said: “The Jockey Club have been great. I was introduced to the partnerships manager at Cheltenham, went down and met her for a day, told her what we do and she said ‘this is so good, I don’t know why we’re not doing something with you’.

“She said they had plastic waste, but were into sustainability, so she bought the sustainability team in, the MD – and from that the conversation started to expand out. Cheltenham seems to try out a few more things, so that’s where we started everything – and they’ve been super receptive.

“They introduced us to (former sponsor) Magners, so we did the Magners jackets at the last Gold Cup. They were a custom item for them.

“I think what it allowed them to do was get behind plastic and say ‘we have to use plastic at this event’. They use recycled cups, so it’s recycled before we even enter – and then we take the recycled cup away, so there’s already a good 360 story around that.”

Johnson developed an interest in racing during his time with former Ascot sponsor Gigaset and he feels the racing industry as a whole has a can-do attitude towards working in more sustainable ways, with Saracens Horse Feeds another company to be recycling its waste into clothing.

He said: “What I’ve found is the horse racing industry has become super sustainable, and I feel like they’re really championing sustainability more than other sports.

“I don’t know why – I think maybe it’s because they’re animal-based, so that’s going to have a massive impact, whereas if you’re Formula One or football, it might not have the same messaging.

“When there’s an animal involved, there are other regulations – other organisations that get involved – so maybe that heightens the fact that sustainability becomes part of the agenda.”

Staff cleaning up at last year's Festival
Staff cleaning up at last year’s Festival (Tim Goode/PA)

Johnson is also keen to further strengthen Reborn’s links across the sport.

He said: “I think sustainability within the horse racing sector is certainly growing – I think it is in any business. Since Covid, we’ve seen sustainability is on the rise, we’re seeing more and more business being more responsible – that’s the key.

“For the last 12 months, since Cheltenham really, we’ve been talking to more and more companies – horse feeds brands, jockeys, racecourses and other organisations – around how we can assist them.”

Guinness is a Cheltenham tradition for many
Guinness is a Cheltenham tradition for many (David Davies/PA)

Recycling plastic rather than manufacturing again saves water and energy as well as producing fewer CO2 emissions, which is why Johnson feels it should no longer be viewed as a single-use item.

He added: “It’s about making sure people value plastic and stop treating it as trash really. Single use is only single use at the Gold Cup if it is used once, but actually there is a place for plastic. I don’t think we’re going to stop making plastic, sadly, so we need to be innovative in the ways that we use it.

“It could be used in a cup at Cheltenham, it could even be turned back into more cups, but it can also be turned into uniforms. (Then) that uniform could maybe be melted back down and turned back into a cup – we try to keep the circular economy going.”