How important do you consider the role of the third sector to be in relation to waste management, with particular relevance to assisting with recycling and reuse schemes?
Helen Middleton: Furniture re-use organisations (FROs) would not class themselves as waste managementagents. Their priority, and that of the FRN, is poverty alleviation, through the provision of low or no-cost householdgoods such as furniture and crockery. But the FRN and its members are providing a vital service because re-use is not really of interest to commercial operators, and enormous amounts of re-useable furniture are being sent to landfill or incineration. Also, local authorities are increasingly attracted to working with FROs because of the wealth of community and social benefits they provide.
Mike Webster: We see the role of our organisation, and the third sector generally, as a harbinger of change within the waste and recycling sector. It raises public awareness and shows how new ideas can be made to work on apractical level before politicians or the private sector takes any interest.
Nick Kightley: Strategically, the third sector is very important in waste management. It often creates a nicheservice that tackles the market’s failure to address hard-to-solve or uneconomic issues. This means that the thirdsector tends to remain a small operator, and often gets little recognition for the effort, investment and creativity it puts in because, once it has been able to prove a business case, commercial operators tend to pick up the opportunity and edge third sector operators out. Third sector commitment is such that it will take on the commercially unattractive challenges, and consider the social and environmental benefits as outweighing the loss of a profit.
Matthew Thomson: As a third sector organisation, our role is more about innovation and helping people from theground up. Third sector solutions do well at bringing communities on board with waste and resource management solutions - the waste majors are all interested in working community organisations just for this reason. Where the third sector adds value is by raising awareness and trying to maximise the environmental and social benefits of every transaction.
Andrew Craig: The third sector has played a pioneering role in the waste and recycling sector as operators ofsome of the earliest community kerbside recycling schemes, although their importance politically has been disproportionately high relative to financial value. But such organisations do have significant potential in helping tobring about the cultural change in attitudes in society generally towards waste, resources and the environment.
Helen Middleton, development officer, Furniture Re-Use Network
The FRN is the national body which supports, assists and develops charitable re-use organisations across the UK.
Mike Webster, senior consultant, Waste Watch
WasteWatch is a UK environmental charity working to change the way people use the world’s natural resources.
Nick Kightley, partnership manager, third sector, Waste & Resources Action Programme
WRAP is a government body that works in the UK to help businesses and individuals reap the benefits of reducing waste, develop sustainable products and use resources in an efficient way.
Matthew Thomson, chief executive, London Community Resource Network
LCRN is a charitable social enterprise supporting organisations and communities working to manage resourcessustainably, especially through waste prevention, reuse and recycling.
Andrew Craig, principal resources management officer, Tees Valley Unlimited, and principal policy officer of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee
TVU is the joint economic development and regeneration arm of the Tees Valley City Region. Andrew’s views in this article are personal and not necessarily representative of LARAC.
It has been suggested that the issue of increasing recycling rates and reducing landfill is too large to be dealt with by small social enterprise organisations. What would be your answer to this?
HM: There are a good number of FROs and recycling organisations that would be classed as ‘small’, but then they do not have the ambition and mission to become large social enterprises because that would take their activities into a more commercial arena. An increasing number of FROs are social enterprises and/or have the capacity to take on, say, full bulky waste contracts for local authorities or at least deliver a part bulky waste service. Many community groups are working towards consortia-type arrangements, in which the larger
organisation takes the lead and is the main contractor with the local authority on re-use or recycling.
MW: It is not just simply about the amount of tonnage that gets diverted from landfill. Re-use is now a major focus for the community sector. It is higher up the waste hierarchy than recycling, and requires a step change in how we think about waste and recycling to ensure that the economic and social benefits are also considered,alongside simple measures of tonnage diverted.
Commercial solutions are going to be much more difficult to fund at the margins of waste management, and the third sector could see quite a renaissance in the next five to ten years - Nick Kightley
NK: We would broadly agree that large-scale waste related operations are unlikely to be where the third sector excels. But if you include the factors that lead to reduction in waste and increased re-use, then the third sector has a significant role to play. Its commitment is second to none, and the number of people who can be marshalled offers huge potential to shape consumer thinking and behaviour, and we should work with them more closely. Commercial solutions are going to be much more difficult to fund at the margins of waste management, and the third sector could see quite a renaissance in the next five to ten years.
MT: Historically in our sector, it has been a case of small is beautiful, but I think there is scope for making things bigger and better through partnership working. Partnership working is a key strength of the third sector, and enables us to achieve scale and reach even when poorly capitalised or working individually at the very local level.The problem of waste is too big for any one player to try to sort out. There needs to be a step change in society and the way people think about waste, rather than actually changing what we are doing, because what social enterprise serves to do in its present form is to bring about awareness of the problem and what needs to be done.
AC: A few social enterprises have contributed significantly to sustainable waste management. These are organisations such as Renew, Furniture Resource Centre Group and Ealing Community Transport. The latter, in particular, is an organisation that epitomises some of the issues surrounding community enterprise and municipal waste and recycling contracts. These functions have sometimes been taken over from community organisations and operated for localauthorities by, usually, private sector organisations. But most of the organisations I have mentioned would probably not be classified as ‘small’ social enterprises so, on the whole, you could say that the suggestion is well founded.
“It is about quality rather than quantity with the third sector, particularly when it comes to the role they play inconnecting with public engagement and education. But we need to see if we can establish a central network forthe third sector so we can quantify its work and record their contribution because at the moment there just is notenough data. There is a very clear role for the third sector going forward - there are quite a lot of revolutionary things going on.”
Dr Peter Jones, waste industry adviser
What obstacles, if any, do you think exist for the third sector when it comes to assisting with recycling and waste management?
MW: Our future challenges lie even further up the waste hierarchy. The third sector is trusted in a way that the Government often is not. It is in a unique position to work with the public to challenge the social logic of consumerism and reduce waste at source, and this is what we need to focus on.
NK: The commercial and public sectors need to understand the different motivations of the third sector. They will work as long, as hard and as intelligently as any commercial operators, provided they can see that enterprise goals are balanced with social and environmental wins as well. This is a huge human resource which is greatly under-utilised at a time when we need all hands on deck to solve our economic,environmental and social challenges.
The main barriers to growth for our sector are the length of time of contracts: we need to get longer contracts - Matthew Thomson
MT: We have struggled with data, but generally I think that our whole industry has some data challenges rather than it being exclusively a third sector problem. The main barriers to growth for our sector are the length of time of contracts: we need to get longer contracts. There has been an habitual way of being worried about the third sector and not giving them long contracts. We need to work on this because if we do not get them then we cannot grow the sector.
AC: The main perceived obstacles are lack of reliability as a waste management solution, lack of resources, inadequate quality procedures and the fact that they are usually driven by other considerations than simply just more sustainable waste management - for example the need to generate income and provide training opportunities for workers on the margins.
“Clearly, a third sector organisation is not going to be well placed when it comes to a large PFI contract, but itdepends on whether there is a strong local presence already. If there is, then it is about extending the role of thethird sector to something more formal, such as the running of a bulky waste collection or a furniture reuse system. The third sector is about adding value, and some local authorities will obviously place a priority on thismore than others.”
Adam Read, practice lead, waste management and resource efficiency, AEA
How do you believe the role of the third sector in waste management could be increased?
HM: Local authority procurement officers and waste managers need clearer guidance about commissioning
third sector organisations for waste-related service level agreements and contracts. The services provided by the third sector organisations offer enormous social benefits to local communities and society in general, and these need to be captured and incorporated as social clauses in contracts. Currently, these crucial issues are often overlooked when contracts are designed, particularly when a private waste management company is involved. Third sector organisations also have a responsibility for this failure to be included or considered at the contracting process.
The services provided by the third sector organisations offer enormous social benefits to local communities and society in general - Helen Middleton
NK: There are some clear opportunities that we are already working on, for example bulky waste collections and repair, re-use and repair take-backschemes with retailers or manufacturers for furniture and white goods, collaboration on civic amenity sites, community composting initiatives, collections from SMEs on industrial estates and food collection services for the hospitality sector. The commercial sector may try to compete in some of these areas, but the question remains as to whether they can add the extra value, such as the benefits of social and environmental wins and the attention to detail, within a cost that can be afforded by the purchaser. The third sector is flexible in a way that is hard to beat, and is well suited to pick up on the details that a commercial operator might not care for.
MT: Partnership working is a key strength of the third sector and enables us to achieve scale and reach, even when poorly capitalised. More partnerships should be made with local authorities and businesses to successfully support third sector waste management groups. Third sector waste management groups need to become more business-savvy as well, and not fall prey to common mistakes that can befall any organisation. A third of all London local authorities have a partnership with social enterprises in waste. We have gone some way now and we are going to go further.
AC: I don’t think local authorities should specify the use of third sector organisations when tendering for waste contracts. But they could and perhaps should encourage, through procurement, their private sector contractors to consider options of working with third sector organisations, recognising the wider agendas those organisations usually work to.