Finding Eden

02 September 2014

Blending horticulture with rock concerts, the Eden Project is a world-famous tourist attraction. Catherine Hackett talks to logistic services officer Glyn Bond about the challenges of keeping it pristine

Nestled in a clay quarry pit in Cornwall sits the world's largest rainforest in captivity, home to steamy jungles and waterfalls. It might sound hard to believe if the Eden Project wasn't already well-established as one of the UK's most iconic tourist attractions, bringing in hundreds of thousands of global visitors every year. 

If that wasn't enough, the project also plays host to a range of events, from weddings and conferences to massive events like 2005's Live 8 concert, with more off-beat events like the World Pasty Championships thrown in for good measure.

The sheer scale of the site, combined with high visitor numbers and a hectic event schedule, creates big cleaning challenges. The Eden Project's logistic services officer, Glyn Bond, heads up a team of 21 cleaning operatives.

"It's very difficult to plan for an organisation such as this because there is so much activity going on," Glyn says. "We have to be quite quick to react. For example, when the Queen visited we only knew about it two days before and we had to get the site prepped for that. It's a huge effort but it's something that we're used to and that a lot of the team thrive on because it's quite exciting – you don't know what the next day's going to bring."

Need for speed

The Eden Project complex is dominated by two artificial biomes that contain thousands of plant species collected from across the world. Outdoor gardens, the visitors' centre, restaurants and an education facility called 'The Core' make up the rest of the main areas open to the public.

Glyn's team is responsible for maintaining day-to-day hygiene and handling the waste and recycling across all of Eden, which is the size of 30 football pitches. In addition to the buildings, the site contains numerous roads and paths, over 20 car parks and around 180 toilets that are dotted around two square miles. Geography, then, is the biggest challenge for the relatively small team, who between them clean 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We work quite fast and experience counts for a lot," Glyn says. "It can seem quite daunting if you're new to the type of commercial cleaning that we're doing."

The first cleaning shift starts at 6am, when half of the team tackle the cleaning of the office spaces and the visitors' centre. Comprising the ticketing hall, a gallery space, retail area and toilets, the visitors' centre is expected to be completed before the first guests arrive – usually from 9.30am. A catch mop is used underneath the tables and to cut in around the exterior, before a scrubber dryer machine is brought in to clean the whole floor surface. The rest of the day is spent window cleaning and tidying the other areas. The team also looks after the road sweeping on site and carries out pressure washing on the buildings' exteriors.

Event management

Daily cleaning schedules must be flexible to accommodate the various events taking place across Eden.

Glyn explains: "People can get married in the biome and have their reception in the gallery space. That space could have already been in use the previous day for a big conference or even that morning, with up to a thousand people attending. Then it's a case of having to clean that space in a couple of hours."

Since 2002, the Eden Project has held the Eden Sessions – musical performances held during summer evenings. This year, headliners included The Pixies, Elbow and Ellie Goulding. Each session brings in approximately 6,000 people, in addition to those visiting during the day.

"That can create quite a few interesting issues because you're dealing with the fact that you've got limited movements around that area, and you're looking after a different type of client than you're used to – then there's the increased volume of recycling to process in the aftermath," Glyn says.

When sessions are back-to-back two nights in a row, it's necessary to adjust the hours of cleaning and the routine.

Glyn says: "We'll come in at 5am in the morning the next day to pick up any rubbish, and other team members would have been working until 11pm the previous night. We try to get buildings out of the way when they close and are not accessible at certain times, before concentrating on critical hit areas, like the restaurants or the visitors' centre."

Divide tasks and conquer

The enormity and diversity of the cleaning tasks make it impossible for one team to do everything, which is why the different departments work together. Those working in retail chip in with cleaning their spaces, while catering looks after the back-of-house cleaning behind the bar and in the kitchen – although Glyn's team will carry out a deep clean when necessary. Similarly, the horticulturalists are responsible for keeping the interior of the biomes clean and for pest management; the cleaning team will assist with any of the catering areas or the paths on occasion.

"We try to deal with the main areas and then support the other teams if they need some expertise or specialist assistance," Glyn says.

While all day-to-day cleaning of the site is completed in-house, the facilities management department contracts out the more specialist and risky work, including high-level cleaning of the exterior of the biomes and the roof of The Core building. However, the building's cutting-edge design and the use of sophisticated technologies keeps the requirement for specialist cleaning to a minimum.

Glyn says: "Most of the windows in The Core have special self-cleaning exteriors and the shapes are designed to minimise dust and grime. The design of The Core's copper roof – which is based on the same spiral design as a sunflower head – also helps to channel the moisture that collects on the roof into the guttering to minimise aggressive staining."

Meanwhile, the external cladding of the biomes are made from ETFE, a plastic material that is resistant to most stains, allowing them to simply wash off in the rain.

Tapping into technology

Cutting-edge technology is also evident in the cleaning equipment used at Eden. While the vast size of the site is not easily remedied, lighter, easy to operate and ergonomic technologies are making work quicker and safer for operatives.

Glyn says: "The vacuum cleaners used to be like tanks to push around; now they're lightweight with unlimited capacities. It's the same with scrubber dryers – there are controls which allow a machine to pull itself, so you're not having to put your back into it and risking pulling muscles. We've also got a road sweeper that can make a horrendous task seem fairly inconsequential because of the calibre of the equipment."

To eliminate the dangers of working at height, high-reach poles are used to clean windows instead of ladders, while battery-operated machines remove the hazards of tripping over cables. Mop handles are ergonomic and easily adjusted for the smallest to the largest member of staff.

Glyn adds: "We're even trying to automate polishing so that, instead of getting repetitive strain injury (RSI) from polishing surfaces by hand, we're using rotary devices that clean everything from the floor to the windows. These come with attachments such as extendible poles that help us to clean corners that were previously inaccessible."

The next big breakthrough for Glyn and his team would be the invention of a cordless vacuum cleaner that has a battery life extending beyond 20 minutes, and which is suitable for dealing with large carpet spaces.

"We're always looking for advances in technology," he says. "The cleaning industry is one of the largest industries in the world, and the people working in that industry really do deserve that type of support."

Striving for sustainability

Sustainability is another key consideration for on-site cleaning and hygiene, which is a reflection of Eden's commitment to reducing its impact on the environment, using resources efficiently and being self-sufficient in soil, water and energy where possible.

As well as reducing its water use in the first place by installing low-flush toilets and taps that turn themselves off, Eden harvests almost half of its water needs by using groundwater collected on-site to flush the toilets and water the plants. Reducing water usage was also one of the reasons for introducing a microfibre cleaning system.

Glyn says: "Microfibre mops clean better and require less water and chemical. We also have buckets that separate dirty water from clean, so we only need to fill it up once with water to complete the job. A single bucket would need to be emptied and refilled three or four times."

The Eden Project is a charity and social enterprise, as well as a tourist attraction, and waste collection is not only good for the environment but good for business too by generating rebates. Recycling bins are set up all over Eden to separate cans, plastic, glass and food waste, as well as a general bin. The cleaning team collects and transports the waste to the on-site waste and recycling compound, where it is separated further and processed ready for collection and transportation off site by Eden's service providers. An on-site compostor recycles the food waste for reuse in the grounds.

The team was given this responsibility two years ago following departmental changes and Glyn says: "We were already collecting all the rubbish and lining the bins so it was a natural progressive transition to go from the collection of waste to processing it.”

Improvements in infrastructure are currently underway to help Eden achieve its target of becoming 'waste neutral', i.e. to balance what is sent for recycling and disposal with what is bought in as recycled products based on weight. "Eventually we'll be in a situation where we can say we recycle everything not just a certain percentage," Glyn says.

Rewarding career

Glyn joined Eden in 2002 as a housekeeping operative before progressing on to supervisor, then senior supervisor, and now manager of cleaning services. It is easy to see why he enjoys working in such a beautiful and unique setting but it is the people who make the job really rewarding.

"I think there's a huge amount to be gained from the cleaning industry and I'd love to see a lot more prestige for people working within it," he says. "My team come from so many diverse backgrounds. Some are ex-managers and one team member was actually a designer who helped to design a Changing Places facility at Eden in conjunction with the architects. It's a phenomenal achievement and a significant victory for us to get that in situ and be able to offer that service."

Changing Places facilities are designed to help those with profound and multiple learning disabilities, as well as those with physical conditions and elderly visitors who need assistance.

"It makes me proud that I've got a team that throughout the years has been very versatile and adept to dealing with anything that is thrown at them. I hope that I'm there to realise their ambitions and potential because that's what makes me feel a sense of achievement."

But it's not just Glyn's work colleagues that make a difference to daily life at Eden.

"I've been here as an operative cleaning the toilets and what really makes your day is when someone says: 'I see you working your socks off, and I think you've done an absolutely fantastic job'. When it comes from a member of the public that doesn't have to say those things, it means the world."