Business isn’t always about boardrooms, briefings and black coffee. So, in tribute to the North-East men and women who take a more unusual approach to enterprise, Andy Richardson takes a look at the unconventional, alternative or downright difficult careers in the region’s economy

Brett Cullinane left his native New Zealand 15 years ago to play professional rugby for West Hartlepool.

He is now helping to tackle the piles of rubbish that North-East householders discard every year.

Tell us about what you do?

I manage the three sites that J&B Recycling operates away from its head office in Hartlepool; there’s two in Redcar and one in Stockton.

I manage 11 staff and make sure the waste is coming in on time, is processed and leaves as recycled materials. Much of my day is spent organising transport and liaising with the councils because it’s mainly household waste we are dealing with.

How did you get into this business?

I came to the UK in 1997.

There were a few of us came over from New Zealand for the season that West were promoted to the Premiership, including the player coach Mike Brewer, a former All Black.

I had 11 seasons at the club; two as a professional. I was young and thought it would last for ever. But I knew I had to find work and became a driver for J&B Recycling in 2000 and I have been here ever since, progressing through the business.

Tell us about the professional rugby career

It was fantastic. I had been playing for Pukekohe Rugby Club, near Auckland, and got the call to come over. A few days later I was making my debut as a prop against Bedford.

The season in the Premiership was great, playing against the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Francois Pienaar and a very young Jonny Wilkinson. I kept playing at Hartlepool Rovers until last year and I’m still involved there, coaching the under 12s.

Do you ever find unusual items when sorting through the waste?

We found a 42in TV that somebody had thrown out just because the batteries in the remote had run out.

We managed to find the owner and he really wasn’t bothered about throwing it out. We find a lot of unwrapped gifts and sometimes gold rings and jewellery. We have to report these things but sometimes it’s difficult to find the owners. We once found £400 in cash, which was handed in to the police. It’s not so nice to find dead animals, but unfortunately that happens too.

What's the most rewarding aspect about your work?

It’s good to know what we are doing is helping the environment by reducing the amount of waste that is sent to landfill.

I have noticed a big increase in recycling rates over the past six years.

I think that people now understand about the importance of recycling and what kind of materials need to be recycled.

It’s interesting that some countries are way ahead on recycling and others are still learning. The UK is about in the middle, but in New Zealand it’s fairly new.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

Getting up at 5am in the middle of winter is never easy.

But it’s also getting people to understand the impact of what can and can’t be recycled.

For example, we sometimes get video tapes left in the kerbside collections. It takes my team ages to unravel the tape from the conveyors while cleaning down the plant.

When we first started with the recycling bins, a lot of people were just putting everything in the one bin without sorting it. That meant it all had to be classified as general waste. But we are winning the battle and people are pretty much getting behind the idea of sorting their waste into plastics, glass, paper, cans and cardboard.

Do you get used to working with rubbish?

Yes, you do. The smell doesn’t bother me at all although it can get quite bad on warm days. We have all the protective gear to wear including masks if we need to, so we are never exposed to the extreme elements.

It’s very interesting work because we are dealing with the public and the local authorities, helping them to understand the importance of recycling.

What do you do in your spare time?

Well, having retired from rugby last year I have more time with my family. My partner is Kirsty and we have an 11-year-old son called Liam.

I really enjoy playing football and rugby with him and walking our two dogs. I coach youngsters. It’s very rewarding to see their improvement throughout the season.