Turning wood recycling in Brighton into a charitable nationwide business

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
The NCWRP is now looking to transport the model to Europe

It’s nearly 20 years since the opening of the country’s first community wood recycling project in Brighton. Elizabeth Green from Community Wood Recycling explains how the idea has developed into a nationwide network

Back in 1998, Richard Mehmed was inspired to set up Britain’s first community wood recycling scheme when he was looking for wood to build a playhouse for his daughter- and saw exactly what he needed in a skip.

He realised that huge amounts of reusable wood were being discarded every year, and contacted his council to find out what organisations existed to help people reuse wood locally. On being told there was nothing, Mehmed decided to set one up himself.

Brighton and Hove Wood Recycling Project, also known as The Wood Store, was started in the corner of a council-owned field with no capital but lots of enthusiasm. Soon, Mehmed was collecting wood, sorting it and selling reusable pieces to the public or making it into simple products.

From the beginning, the project was structured as a social enterprise with the aim of generating environmental benefits. Following publicity in the local press, volunteers came forward, with anyone willing to help welcomed on board.

Soon it became clear that getting involved was making a big difference, helping build confidence and develop skills in people who had been out of the workplace. So the organisation’s second purpose, changing the lives of disadvantaged people, evolved.

By 2003 there was a well-developed community business in Brighton, doing good at a local level but with no effect on the national picture. Within the industry, wood was still seen as a product that could not be reused, and wood recycling meant chipping.

However, word of the project’s success was spreading in other communities. With grant funding, Mehmed was able to start the National Community Wood Recycling Project (NCWRP), an umbrella organisation set up to develop a nationwide network of wood recycling social enterprises called Community Wood Recycling.

Three years’ worth of grant funding got the project off the ground, but it was a determination to be self-sufficient that led the organisation to move from co-ordinating a network of local projects to becoming a significant player in the construction industry waste supply chain.

Expanding horizons

Construction waste had always been the mainstay of local projects and they had started to get work from bigger companies. Mehmed and his small team of part-time staff and volunteers decided to target these companies at a national level, getting in work for all their member enterprises and taking a 10% fee to cover the costs of marketing, invoicing and credit control.

He says: “We had six people packed into a small room above an old department store in Brighton, and we focussed on talking to as many people as possible – buyers, site managers, environmental advisors and anyone who would listen.

“We offered a straightforward service; instead of putting your wood waste in a skip, make a bay with three bits of heras fencing, pile it up and we’ll collect it in our 3.5 tonne trucks. By charging by volume, we made sure that customers only paid for the wood taken away, and we packed our trucks tightly to avoid the sort of void space you get in skips.

“All the big builders had to do is deal with one office, and we could deal with things like Pre-Qualification Questionnaires, which would be beyond the reach of our member enterprises”

In 2016, the organisation rescued more than 17,000 tonnes of wood

The scheme has grown to an annual turnover of over £2.3 million, working with leading construction companies such as Kier, Laing O’Rourke and Morgan Sindall. Key to the success has been investing in a bespoke IT system that allows the organisation to not only track collections and invoice but also provide environmental summaries showing what proportion of wood has been reused and what proportion has been recycled by chipping.

These have become more important as pressure on supply chain managers to account for what happens to their waste increases. Recycling certificates for 10, 20, 50 and 100 tonnes are also very popular, and go down well with Considerate Constructors Scheme assessors.

Positive reflections

In the nearly 20 years since the original project was set up, the landscape for wood waste disposal has changed for the better, with a much higher proportion going into segregated wood skips or being sorted from a mixed skip. However, recycling from skips still means chipping. NCWRP provides what it believes to be the only large-scale commercial alternative.

In 2016, the organisation rescued more than 17,000 tonnes of wood – twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. More than half of what was collected was directly reused, either as timber for the local community, made into handmade products by staff and volunteers or used as firewood.

Mehmed is motivated by the difference the company can make to ordinary people. He says: “It’s amazing to walk into a Wood Store and see the racks full of wood and the beautiful furniture the guys in the workshop make, and know all this timber would have ended up being chipped if it wasn’t for Community Wood Recycling.

“Saving resources and reducing carbon emissions is a key part of what we do. But we are also driven by knowing that working in Community Wood Recycling changes lives. Seeing people who come in to the project with legacy of their battles with addiction or mental health problems still very apparent grow into flourishing members of the team is hugely rewarding.”

Looking to the future

Mehmed is always looking for ways to progress and improve the business, developing the range of products NCWRP sells. He says: “The hand-crafted bespoke tables and shelving units we can produce now are a long way from the planters knocked together with nails that we used to make in the early days of the project.

“Looking further afield, we are taking our model to Europe. Our research has shown that there are no formalised reuse schemes in other European countries – even those with a very good reputation for recycling don’t reuse wood. We are now working with a group in Sweden to set up the first non-UK community wood recycling project.”

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