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Feature: Putting down roots

Thinking back seven years ago when the Brighton and Hove Wood Recycling Project started, Richard Mehmed had no idea of the scale and success of what would follow. Now the director of the National Community Wood Recycling Project (NCWRP), Mehmed says that the creation of the award-winning business model now being franchised around the country was a "complete fluke" - but one that is now having a significant impact.

In 1998, under orders from his daughter to build her a playhouse, Mehmed was passing a building site and asked if he could take some of the numerous new sheets of plywood that had been thrown into a skip. Having been told he was welcome to it as it was only going to landfill, Mehmed thought that this kind of waste was "absolutely immoral", and further investigation revealed that there were no wood recycling groups in the area.

The result was the Brighton and Hove project set up with trainees and volunteers, with the aim of recovering and reusing some of the vast quantity of timber that is going to landfill. With initial sponsorship from three local companies, collections from building sites began. Rather than going in the skip, it was arranged that timber would be separated and stacked ready for collection. Charging less than the cost of a skip, there is a financial as well as environmental incentive to recycle.

About two years ago, Mehmed left Brighton and Hove in the safe hands of a colleague for the NCWRP, which is helping to set up and develop a network of wood recycling social enterprises based on the Brighton and Hove model. There are already 11 projects operating, and the NCWRP is on course to open a further 10 in 2005/06.

But Mehmed stresses that the project is not simply about the environment and saving resources, but also a social project offering training to people who have been unemployed for a long while. He says: "We are creating sustainable jobs and training for individuals who are marginalised from society, be it through mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse. This is a way of getting their life back on track.

"Volunteers are treated the same as staff and we tell them that, although we may not be able to pay them now, if they work hard and commit themselves to building up the project, then we can take them on as an employee. They create their own work and then get a job at the end of it. The results have been fantastic."

To ensure that the wood is reused suitably, the collected timber is graded. Grade one is timber good enough to sell back for DIY. It is around 2m or more in length and includes items such as doors in good condition. Grade two is usually too small to be used for DIY but can be used to make wood products such as compost bins or furniture. Grade three is everything that doesn't fit into the other two grades, such as bits of old fence post and small offcuts. This either goes off to be made into chipboard or is used as boiler fuel.

Mehmed says the estimates on how much wood is going to landfill varies, but he believes it could be between five and six million tonnes a year. The project focuses on wood generated by the construction and demolition industries as the recycling of wood waste from pallets and packaging is already being addressed.

The NCWRP is currently working with around 30 organisations that are looking to set up projects. Mehmed hopes that in five years as many as 50 schemes could be up and running, together making a significant impact.

He admits that, to begin with, getting people involved was a little difficult: "At the start it was a lo

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