Could the future of sustainability lie in how we view reuse?

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Photo credit: alma stock photo

Michael Gove wants to open the nation’s rubbish dumps, according to a report in The Sunday Times.

“We must reduce the amount of material we waste,” the environment secretary reportedly said at the Conservative Party conference last month.

“At the moment, if I take something to the dump for which I have no use but which you could happily have picked up and reused, then you are not allowed to. It is not an answer to everything but greater reuse is one way to ensure that pressure on resources diminishes.”

The comments failed to stir much interest at the conference, but were sucked up, satirised and spat out by Twitter users. “Climbing through rubbish heaps in hopes of finding something valuable … not just a metaphor for Brexit, but part of the actual plan” quipped @astroehlein. We are yet to see whether this will be part of Gove’s soon-to-be-published Resources and Waste strategy, but is the idea bonkers or brilliant?

First off, we have to assume that Gove doesn’t want us to scramble across landfill chucking items into a bag. The waste and recycling sector has a fatal injury rate 16 times that of the average across other industries, so even the risks to trained staff are evident.

An open gates policy for the public would therefore be nonsensical – at landfills there are chemicals, sharp objects, disease-carrying rodents and huge trucks moving backwards and forwards (the fact we are prepared to let children sift through our garbage in developing countries is a huge issue deserving of much more attention).

Responsible access to reuse shops on-site, or the separation of reusable materials and items for local reuse shops located elsewhere, is a very different matter.

As CIWM noted in its 2016 Reuse – state of the nationsreport, reuse has for a long time been the “neglected child” of the waste hierarchy, an “underutilised element of our resource management mix and one which deserves more attention from both policy-makers and the resource management industry itself”. Thrusting it into the spotlight, therefore, is no bad thing.

CIWM’s observation came on the back of a survey of local authorities (LAs), charities and waste management professionals. Of the 157 LAs asked about the potential for reuse of household goods, 94% said they promote reuse. Some 58% of the waste management respondents also said they had contractual obligations to undertake reuse activities. That was the good news.

However, 78% of LA respondents said the provision for reuse in their area was either “poor” or left “room for improvement”. As the report authors noted, it was a “pretty honest” reflection of how things stand.

There was more. When asked whether there is a reuse culture embedded across their authority, 86% of LA respondents stated “no” or “don’t know”. Just over half of those in waste management considered there to be a reuse culture embedded across their organisation.

SarahJane Widdowson is business area manager for waste operations and procurement at Ricardo Energy & Environment. “Anything that will allow our unwanted items to get a second life is to be encouraged and highlighting opportunities for reuse will help change the mindset of people visiting these sites,” she told RWW.

This won’t happen overnight, of course. Would you really pick up a vacuum cleaner from a pile of other rubbish, plug it in at home and be confident it won’t blow up, electrocute you or blow its contents out instead of sucking? People are quite happy to take or even buy a second-hand Hoover via eBay, Gumtree or Freecycle, but collecting one from the local tip suggests it is broken.

Reuse shopping

This is why organised, professional reuse shops have received increasing attention as part of the set-up at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs).

FCC Environment recently conducted a poll with YouGov, which showed that people have a long wishlist when it comes to what they want at their HWRC, but charity repair and reuse shops were right up there.

“Reuse covers everything from buying and selling used goods and repairing items rather than discarding them, to renovating and ‘upcycling’,” said the firm’s CEO, Paul Taylor.

“In recent years, it has [also] become associated with buying items from vintage outlets and charity shops and gifting hand-me-downs to others. Fundamentally, though, reuse means challenging a throwaway culture.”

Reuse shops can be fantastic local hubs, inspiring entrepreneurs and raising much-needed revenue for local charities and services. Many are more than just a shed for old toys and bric-a-brac. Suez and Surrey County Council, for example, have created a new brand – Revive – for four shops that are now taking items from 15 community recycling centres.

Nearly 1,000 tonnes of waste is being reused every year, generating significant revenue for the council to reinvest in waste management, as well as thousands of pounds for local charities.

Indeed, the shops are not about councils giving away space and resources in order to be charitable (peppercorn rents are not sustainable when councils are pinched by austerity).

In 2014, when Warwickshire County Council competitively franchised the operation of such shops at its HWRCs, the lots were set at a benchmark of £50,000.

The 700 tonnes of material being diverted each year across the shops is now saving the council another £75,000. Scale this up to the UK’s 1,056 recycling centres and there is £35m for cash-strapped councils there for the taking.

How many reuse shops are there at HWRCs, though? The Local Government Association offered “many” in a response to RWW, but could not put an exact figure on it. One expert guesses it might be 100, but it’s likely to be closer to 50, he said. There could be a number of reasons why this isn’t higher, including lack of finance, as well as more practical issues regarding the sites themselves.

One man's trash is another man's treasure

The fear of falling foul of “ill-defined” waste definitions is also an issue, said Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at Green Alliance. “Government certainly has it in its power to make it easier [for people to recover cast-offs] by working with local authorities and businesses to better apply the definition of waste.”

Still, not every site will lend itself to a shop. Rural authorities with spacious HWRCs will be the most likely to have one. “Many HWRCs are old sites, and often struggle to cope with the volume of visitors and rubbish they receive,” explained Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ.

“To make reuse shops work, they need a designated space – larger per item than the waste handling or recycling bays – to enable the stock to be assessed and presented to consumers.” To relieve some of the pressure on site and expand the marketplace, Suez has started doing online sales.

The opportunity to do more of this in order to use less is clear. Like many others, Read hopes that Gove is alluding to the growth of these controlled and managed systems to help further divert waste from landfill (or recycling), rather than some free-for-all residential scavenger hunt down the local tip. We don’t know if that’s the case, however.

In its response to the story on its media blog, Defra didn’t mention reuse: “… more needs to be done and we are looking at further ways to reduce avoidable waste and recycle more as part of our resources and waste strategy later this year.” A search of the site shows only one other reference to the term “reuse”.

Those in the industry clearly crave a more robust policy framework. In CIWM’s 2016 report, 30% of LAs were not measuring reuse activities at all, despite being actively involved in them.

A report by Policy Exchange in 2017, Going round in circles,suggested that the data available almost certainly under-estimates the amount of reuse taking place. “Data on ‘reuse’ taking place through third-party routes – such as charity shops, eBay, and other marketplaces for second-hand goods – are simply not integrated into waste statistics at all,” the authors noted.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Pat Jennings, head of policy and communications at CIWM, said, adding that new reuse policies should include specific targets, incentivisation through extended producer responsibility schemes, plus standardised data collection metrics to improve reporting and benchmarking.

“The business case for reuse is broad – encompassing environmental, economic and social benefits – [but] it is rarely articulated effectively,” she said.

For too long, attention, policies and targets have been focused on recycling, so the chance to debate reuse is welcome. Is this just another example of headline-grabbing comment rather than concrete commitment from our Environment Secretary?All will be revealed in his new resources strategy.

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