Politics as usual? Profile of Dave Dalton, CEO of the British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation

Materials World magazine
2 Jul 2010
Dave Dalton

As CEO of the British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation, Dave Dalton wants to persuade his members and the UK Government that investment is urgently needed to ensure the industry’s future prosperity. Gary Price learns how he intends to fight for change in a sector that he has worked in for almost 30 years.

Putting science before politics is at the heart of Dave Dalton’s agenda as CEO of the British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation.

He believes he can bring a level of scientific rigour to the political stage to help shape the arguments regarding the merits of glass. He says the glass industry has spent too much time worrying about other materials that are competing to displace it, and not enough thinking about the need for investment and research.

Having taken on the role of CEO in March, Dalton explains, ‘I am not prepared to beat the drum over things we have no evidence for, or that I do not fundamentally believe in. I have always been my own man and I will not stand on the soap box and simply protest that glass is the best material without first properly understanding the evidence and arguments put before me’.

Experience matters

In 1986, after training as an Analytical Chemist, Dalton began his postgraduate studies in Glass Science and Technology at the University of Sheffield, UK, while working at the near by British Glass Industry Research Association (BGIRA). Having gained an analytical post in the test laboratories at BGIRA simply to further his scientific curiosities, he found his true interests and skills lay in the field of R&D, and soon moved over to initially supporting and ultimately managing their glass R&D programme.

‘I’d always found science and mathematics fascinating ever since early encounters with my Grandfather who was an engineer and phenomenally quick at mental arithmetic’, he explains. ‘I found his work enthralling and my interest in the fundamentals of science grew from there.’

Dalton says that he joined BGIRA to ‘try and discover what the next generation of glass making might be’.

‘We undertook research investigating the reaction chemistry of high temperature transient species when applying plasma heating techniques to the melting of glass, and worked on novel routes to the production of glass films through sol-gel methods,’ he explains. ‘We investigated such issues as developing bonding to glass substrates and the surface chemistry of siloxanes to improve bonding to glass surfaces.’

Unfortunately, the UK Government and industry, who were backing the projects, clashed over their views on what was most important in terms of funding for glass technology.

‘The Government wanted to look ahead at how UK PLCs could become fit and technically capable to cope in the 21st Century’, says Dalton. ‘But, in the 1980s, the industry faced austere financial times and was understandably focused on finding solutions to more immediate problems to help them maintain market share.’ As a result, the programmes became much diminished and were never completed.

Despite this set-back, Dalton continued to work his way up through the sector, initially to Head of Melting Technology at British Glass Technology, before becoming General Manager and then Technical Director at Glass Technology Services, also in Sheffield.

During that time, he says, he has learned a great deal about the sector, and that experience has helped him bring a lot of pragmatism to the role of CEO of the British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation. ‘I do not want to spend my time shuffling around the corridors of Whitehall [the heart of the UK’s governmental administration] trying to make friends. I want to have a focused lobby on the merits of glass based on scientific understanding’, he says. ‘But I realise that I can achieve more [for the glass sector] as a politician than I can in the laboratory.’

Material supremacy

Dalton is a personable man, but one who acknowledges that he may upset a few people while ‘dragging the organisation into the 21st Century’.

‘We are dealing with a much more clued up, well positioned audience these days. Retailers, for example, very cleverly do their own research and lifecycle assessments. We cannot simply say to them, “use glass or be damned”. They will not buy that message. Instead, we need to explain why glass is appropriate in certain applications, acknowledging that there is a place for other materials.

‘What we are going to do is work out where glass has a future, and reassure the retailers that glass is not a material that is being left behind. It is a marvellous material and brings unique properties, particularly regarding its inertness, recyclability and its workability. We need to bring out the benefits of glass, but a lot of investment is needed to be able to do that on a commercial level.’ Otherwise, he says glass may become ‘a forgotten material.

‘It is a poorly understood material. For every glass technologist out there, there are probably 1,000 metallurgists. This is because it is an under-funded area of materials science.’

But Dalton is quick to acknowledge that the Confederation must take some responsibility for this. ‘Over recent years, funding has not been made available for core science activities within our organisation because we have had to work very hard to balance our books and service our members’, he explains. ‘We therefore cannot learn more about the material and move forward. Some container manufacturers might say to me, “I only make bottles and jars, why would I be interested in heat sensitive coatings and reactive films?”. The answer is that those innovations will be the next line of defence when plastics inevitably move another two steps ahead. Materials science and technology moves in leaps and bounds and if glass does not follow, it will become a redundant material.’

Dalton says that he will continue to campaign on this issue and get some of the focus and investment back in order to underpin the sector that has, in his words, ‘floundered in the area of R&D for too long’.

As proof of this, the Confederation worked alongside IOM3 in 2009 to deliver a Home Office Initiative to develop a safer pint glass. The project aimed to reduce the number of violent incidents involving glassware.

‘We compared a number of materials to examine impact failure, durability, and aesthetics after washing,’ says Dalton. ‘Independent tests show that other materials quickly degrade. Glass has a clear advantage in this respect.’

Fundamental research activities are not the only area lacking investment. According to Dalton, there is a serious shortage of skilled workers too. ‘I spent my first six years [at the University of Sheffield] buried in the library learning about glass. Students do not do that anymore and it is difficult to find successors that are challenging my generation in terms of knowledge,’ he says. ‘They are coming from a materials science background, where there is little taught in the area of straightforward glass.

‘When I was at University you were taught how to put everything you had learned into practice. As well as glass technology, we studied how you would build a furnace and the interface between glass and refractory materials. Today everything is swamped under the general term “materials science” and it is part of that great “catch all”. As a result, there are no longer enough glass technologists around.’

Greenhouse glass

Despite these issues, the outlook for the sector still appears to be relatively healthy. Sustainability, lifecycle assessment and recycling are all big issues affecting most industries, and this is one area where the glass sector is taking positive steps.

‘The majority of the work we do these days has an environmentaly flavour to it’, says Dalton. ‘We have taken on an Environmental Director who was at the forefront of the climate change negotiations [with Government] for our sector. He brought an understanding of how we would be measured and penalised if we did not shape up. We put in a system so that, if one company was to underperform, it could be traded off against a company that had over performed, and we built data capture systems to help collect data on our emissions with integrity. This was found to be exemplary by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’, he continues.

‘The glass industry was the first industry to collect waste from households and recycle it in furnaces.’

But unfortunately, the UK’s recovery infrastructure for glass is not yet able to cope with one key problem, a colour imbalance.

‘The UK is a net producer of flint or colourless glass’, explains Dalton. ‘But when it comes to collecting glass to re-melt from households, we finish up with a disproportionate amount of green glass.’

The UK predominantly produces clear and amber glass for export in the form of spirit bottles but imports twice as much green glass as it manufactures, mainly in the form of wine bottles. Green glass is widely used in beverage packaging as it offers ultraviolet protection, helping to preserve the flavour and shelf-life of a product.

‘The industry is working hard to increase the amount of glass recycled and currently all the green bottles we make in the UK contain a very high recycled content, typically 80%’, says Dalton. ‘But this colour imbalance has held back growth in UK glass recycling.’

So why cant the UK switch to coloured glass? Dalton says that from a brand perspective, the UK market is not yet ready, and the premium product status of whisky and vodka need the high clarity that good clear glass bottles impart, to maintain worldwide markets.

‘The glass container sector feels very vulnerable at the moment and needs someone to challenge brands and retailers on their behalf if we are going to drive a positive change,’ he explains. ‘We now need someone with the courage of their convictions to break the old way of thinking and I am trying to do exactly that.’

Up close
Education – Graduate in Advanced Analytical Chemistry, MSc (Tech) in Glass Science and Technology, both at the University of Sheffield, UK.
Employment highlights – Analytical Chemist, British Glass Industry Research Association (BGIRA) (1981-88). Head of Melting Technology, British Glass Technology (1989-95). General Manager, Glass Technology Services (GTS) (1995-99). Technical Director, GTS (1999-2010). Chief Executive Officer of GTS and the British Glass Manufacturers’ Confederation (2010-present), all based in Sheffield, UK. Member of the Society of Glass Technology.

Further information: British Glass