Swapping stars for sustainability

November 9, 2020

Laura Hepburn is well versed in the art of blockbuster film and television production, having worked on a number of big titles in recent years. Now though, she’s shining the spotlight on something entirely different – environmental sustainability. As director of Middlesbrough-based waste- to-energy firm Greenology, Laura has created a set all of her own to turn plastic waste, tyres and even wind turbine blades into power.

“It was extremely tempting, but I guess you could say I turned down James Bond.”

Countless women have tried – and failed – over the years to escape 007’s allure.

Not Laura Hepburn, though.

As a trusted assistant director and production team member across numerous well-known film and television titles, Hollywood chiefs wanted Laura to help deliver Bond’s forthcoming adventure No Time To Die.

However, as boss of Greenology, the Middlesbrough firm spearheading a circular recycling revolution through a blueprint of plastic waste, tyre and wind turbine blade transformation, Laura spurned the superspy’s advances.

And there’s the thing.

To understand Laura’s present-day journey, you must look down her past avenues.

The world of broadcast entertainment wasn’t the road Laura – who grew up in the North Yorkshire seaside hideaway of Robin Hood’s Bay – chose to navigate as a teenager when embarking upon her life journey.

Nevertheless, it has turbo-charged her real passion of sustainability, with monies earned from her production stints furnishing Greenology with crucial growth capital.

James Bond might be missing from her CV, but Laura’s credits list remains weighty – the roll calls of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Game of Thrones, Phantom Thread, Tolkien, Yesterday and Gentleman Jack all carry her name.

Laura’s break came when she was identified for a role on the 1950s-themed drama Phantom Thread, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a dressmaker.

Headhunted for skills she’d showcased at an advertising and marketing agency, Laura’s first brushes with broadcast production began in the North Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes.

“I was working for DTW, in Guisborough, east Cleveland, where we were winning contracts that would normally go to London,” says Laura.

“It was great fun and I did a lot of filming and editing work, and I was good at organising people too.

“I’d moved back to Robin Hood’s Bay to help my autistic son – who was coming up to his 16th birthday – study for his exams, and it was then that a friend told me the Phantom Thread people needed a location marshal for their Northern schedule.

“I went for it and ended up looking after Daniel Day-Lewis,” smiles Laura.

“I had to follow him everywhere to make sure he was safe.

“It was my responsibility to move him from a little cottage to the set and back again.

“One of my jobs was to make sure the cottage’s AGA oven was on, so that he’d be warm enough – it was a crazy experience.”

Surreal it may have been, but Laura’s attention to detail and reassuring on-set presence yielded further projects.

“I worked on Tolkien and ran in falafels and cups of tea to the team while being up to my ankles in mud and surrounded by rats in First World War trenches.

“There would be days too when I’d be chatting to people like Lily Collins – who played Tolkien’s wife Edith Bratt – about making the best Yorkshire puddings.

“Everyone thinks of the film industry as being very serious, but the conversations you have are just so normal.

“It was the same when I worked on the BBC drama Gentleman Jack,” continues Laura.

“Suranne Jones played Anne Lister, a real warrior woman who went up against powerful Victorian men as a landowner and industrialist, and, like Daniel Day- Lewis, stayed in character.

“There were times when she was storming around set and I had to jump in and fling open a door for her!

“But there were times when she was so relatable too, like when she was phoning home to put her child to bed.”

With her stock now having risen, Laura supported director Danny Boyle on romantic comedy Yesterday, wherein the lead character finds fame by plagiarising Beatles songs.

It was here when James Bond came calling.

“I had 8000 extras to look after on Yesterday and my backside is in one of the big groups shots in the film,” she smiles.

“I was picked as part of a team from Yesterday to join Danny on No Time to Die.

“However, it would have meant three months of being abroad and I’d just started working on Greenology, so I couldn’t commit myself.”

For a woman who has supported the creation of several big screen narratives, Laura’s is a story that has an almost Hollywood feel to it.

From leaving home to study at university, to life as a single mother and battling serious health complications
– Laura underwent a hysterectomy at 26 following the birth of her third child – alongside a succession of roles, her’s is a tale of numerous strands.

“I studied Art and Design at GNVQ advanced level at Scarborough College and won the young designer of the year title,” says Laura.

“I then went to study graphic design at Liverpool John Moores University – I was the first student they took that didn’t have A-levels, and actually gained a placement to go to Parham Santana brand agency, in New York, after my studies.

“However, I fell very poorly in my first year and needed treatment, so had to finish my degree at Teesside University.

“I was basically told by doctors that I needed to act sharpish if I wanted to have children, so I did – I had two boys in one year.

“I moved back to Robin Hood’s Bay to look after them and to finish my degree, and once I’d done the latter, I worked for a couple of design agencies.”

Not long after, Laura was headhunted by Northern Creative and rose to the role of business development manager in the early 2000s.

Now living in Aislaby, close the market town of Yarm, near Stockton, she played a key role in a major tourism event – only for illness to strike again.

She says: “One of my big projects was encouraging people to come to Middlehaven to see the glamourous Tall Ships, in a project alongside Middlesbrough Council.

“But I became very poorly and had to move back to Robin Hood’s Bay – I needed help with the children as I underwent further treatment.”

After completing her therapy, Laura set up her own design agency before joining third sector organisation Seachange Community Trust.

“I was doing communications, PR and design,” says Laura, “and Seachange was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

“I learnt about humility and worked with people from lots of different backgrounds.

“No two days were ever the same; I could be fighting to save a care home, working with the homeless or supporting volunteers on various projects.

“But I then was headhunted again, this time by Noble Foods, to work on the Happy Egg Co. brand.

“You’ve never experienced a challenge until you’ve tried to get Yorkshire chicken farmers to use social media and technology!” she laughs.

Not long after, Laura fell pregnant, this time with her daughter, and then underwent a hysterectomy.

However, never one to sit idle, she used the time that combined caring for three children with recovery from a serious operation to plot her next career move.

Laura decided to return to Teesside University to study a Master’s degree in future design, a move that proved to be the genesis of Greenology.

“I’d always been interested in sustainability, but future design piqued my interest to new levels,” says Laura, who also completed a teaching qualification and got married in the period.

“I was looking at the problems of plastic – this was ten years ago, so the focus was nothing like it is today – in particular Africa and possible solutions to plastic bottle waste, such as Lego-style blocks for housing.

“But I was a mum, and I needed to keep working for my family, so I couldn’t fulfil my sustainability dream at that point.”

However, Laura’s ambitions moved closer to reality when she returned to the Happy Egg Co., with the move introducing her to pyrolysis, a process that thermally decomposes objects to create energy.

From here, she was directed towards Greenology – which at this juncture was a biomass firm based in Liverton Mines, east Cleveland.

A partnership was struck up wherein the business would help Laura research and develop a project around creating electricity from chicken faeces.

However, things quickly spiralled in another direction.

“I started Greenology by accident, really,” says Laura, who sits on the board of the Tees Valley Assist Women’s Network to nurture female talent.

“The company was supposed to help me, but within a week the person overseeing the site had left.

“Then I began discovering things that shouldn’t have been there and we met resistance from local people.

“We were then flooded in February and, just a few weeks later, our factory was the victim of an arson attack right as we were adjusting to the COVID-19 lockdown.

“We’d already been working in the background to move down to Middlesbrough, so if anything, the fire made that decision even easier,” says Laura.

Now operating from Skippers Lane Industrial Estate – a move fuelled by Laura’s film and television work – the company is pressing ahead.

With an order book that lists work with excavator maker JCB – and previously- revealed plans to create up to 50 jobs in a new de-polymerisation plant designed to turn thousands of tonnes of plastic into bio-diesel – Laura says the prospects are bright.

Add in a focus to transform old wind turbine blades into marine-grade fuel, and Laura says Greenology – which currently has four staff members, four apprentices and 20 local consultants – is ready to lead a new revolution.

“There is some amazing work being done on wind farms, solar power and hydrogen,” says Laura, who was recognised by the Women’s Engineering Society earlier this year as one of the country’s top 50 females for her work around sustainability.

“But targets for 2030 and 2050 are too far away – we need to deliver positive change now.

“Here at Greenology, we have created a full circle solution and are bringing new jobs and sustainability.

“We are creating fuel for JCB’s machines from their old tyres and creating rubber crumb for new playground surfaces in the process.

“But we’re looking elsewhere,” says Laura, who, as North East Times went to print, was waiting to see if she had triumphed in the Young Director of the Year category at the Institute of Directors’ Yorkshire and North East Director of the Year Awards.

She continues: “There are wind turbine blade graveyards around the world and their recycling is a massive issue.

“We can shred down a blade and put it through our pyrolysis procedure – which turns it back into its original state of oil – and process that to create power.

“We are working with firms like Wilton Engineering and Siemens to put processes in place that will create new jobs on the docks.

“How good would it be to see ships leaving North East ports to fix turbines fuelled by recycled blades?”

And it is this commitment to local sustainability that will drive Greenology forward, with Laura keen to see her venture bolster the region’s job market.

She adds: “My grandparents lived in Berwick Hills, on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, and educated me on the history and heritage of Teesside.

“That’s why I find it so dispiriting at the moment to see young people unable to get jobs and others who have been laid off.

“My team has taken me to where I am today, and I’m proud to be providing them – and others that will join in the future – with jobs for life.

“The old skillsets from industries like our steelworks are dying out, so we have to look to the future.

“That future will come from a green revolution.”

Laura Hepburn, director of Greenology