Reuse is on the up, writes Jane Stephenson MBE, chief executive of Resource Futures, who considers its worth in the context of policy drivers and community buy-in during these times of austerity
As resource scarcity moves up the agenda in policy and commercial circles and the general public is coping with an age of austerity, there is increasing interest in reuse of materials.
Policy drivers all focus on resource efficiency and waste prevention. The Waste Framework Directive puts prevention clearly at the forefront of waste strategy and, more recently, the European Resource Efficiency Roadmap has been published.
Given the difficulties in measuring absolute waste reduction - to say nothing of the political challenges of turning round an economy based on material consumption - it is not surprising that reuse is receiving more attention. There are advantages to this from a resource scarcity point of view as companies focus on longevity and repairability of their products.
This shift is not confined to academic and public policy arenas, and it seems increasingly likely that real change will be driven by economics and the recognition by some key multi-national companies that resource scarcity is a threat to their business models.
With growing consumption in the emerging BRIC economies, major producers have shifted their attention to securing the resources with which to make their products. It is a short jump from that point to thinking about how to make products last longer or how to secure the embedded materials for recycling into new products - but a rather larger leap to thinking about moving from selling products to services.
From the consumer’s perspective, there is still a stigma among many people associated with second-hand goods. WRAP’s research Valuing Our Clothes demonstrated that potential donors also had concerns about the value of passing unwanted clothes on for reuse.
While austerity measures may increase the number of people relying on reused goods, it does not necessarily follow that they would not return to wanting new products should their circumstances change. So we may have to wait for initiatives on the high street to help alter these perceptions, for example Marks & Spencer’s Shwopping scheme with Oxfam.
The challenges for the waste management industry are significant, not least because the current landfill diversion and recycling targets are based on tonnages. Reuse activity does not currently result in high tonnage diversion.
Manufacturers and consumers, both essential stakeholders to increasing reuse, think in terms of products and their economic value, not how much they weigh. This issue is likely to surface as a significant factor in research currently being undertaken. Setting carbon reduction targets might be a better metric to use to maximise reuse activity.
At a macro level, we can say that interest in reuse is healthy. There is much more to do, and the research projects currently being undertaken by WRAP and Defra will add to our understanding of reuse as well as highlighting areas for further investigation.
At a micro level, reuse has for many years been the preserve of the third sector. This has included members of the Furniture Reuse Network and Scrapstores UK, charity shops and jumble sales, free online exchanges and local swap shops. Added to this is the thriving private sector second-hand market ranging from antique shops to auctions, second-hand stores, car-boot sales and eBay.
Local authorities have tended to confine their activities to promoting local reuse organisations, with only a few entering into contractual arrangements to deliver reuse services.
Resource Futures works with clients and other stakeholders to drive forward best practice and contribute to developing the national agenda in terms of minimising the effects of material consumption. Recently it has been building on its expertise in the field of reuse with national studies of household waste and recycling centres (HWRCs) and bulky waste collections along with research on reuse for Defra.
HWRCs provide a platform from which the waste management industry can build its reuse profile. Segregation for reuse at HWRCs is a practical demonstration of what can be achieved. Such sites attract a large footfall from the public, making them an excellent means of getting key messages across.
We would urge local authorities and contractors, whether or not they have a system for reuse in place, to monitor and measure the type, quantity and quality of reusable items entering their HWRCs. This data is hugely important in ensuring that reuse potential is maximised.
As reuse becomes more important to waste strategy, I expect to see more reuse at HWRCs in the coming years. Of course, potentially reusable items are not necessarily easily sellable by the council or contractor. This is where partnering with the third sector can provide significant gains.
Resource Futures research shows that some HWRC managers dislike the idea of segregating reusable items for sale. No doubt the idea of their areas looking like jumble sales or anticipating problems with servicing containers have something to do with this. But you only have to look at sites like Banbridge in Northern Ireland, the East Leeds HWRC or the Pinbrook Road Reuse Centre in Exeter to see that onsite shops can be very professional.
It takes time and effort to develop these systems. Whether it is worthwhile to do so will depend on the priorities of the council and the willingness of the local community to reuse.
An alternative is to segregate items for a third sector or private company to take for reuse offsite. Well-trained site staff that understand the type and quality of items that are reusable, and regular communication with the third party to determine which items are desirable, are important.
Reuse may account for only 1-2% of site throughput, but the economic, social and environmental benefits and PR opportunities mean that reuse is a popular activity.
And there should be no shortage in the supply chain. Even with decreasing site throughputs and the economic downturn, quality items still arise at HWRCs. A bigger challenge will be to ensure that there are buyers. Regardless of whether items are sold on- or offsite, it will be important to market the service and maximise the good news angle.
It is our belief that reuse will become more important in the new circular economy and it will take a mixture of strategic leadership and on-the-ground commitment to trying new initiatives, which will challenge existing systems and practices.
At Resource Futures we intend to build on our track record of working at all levels, from research to local delivery, to make those changes happen.
Resource Futures, the Bristol-based resource efficiency consultancy, is a leading authority on reuse and recycling at HWRCs
Resource Futures manages the national network of 66 Community RePaint schemes, which has been sponsored by manufacturer Dulux since 1993.
The schemes collect unwanted, surplus paint and redistributes it to individuals, communities and charities in need, improving the wellbeing of people and the appearance of places.
In 2011, RePaint saved 343,597 litres of paint with a market value of more than £1.5m from going to waste. Around 217,000 litres of paint were redistributed to community groups, charities, voluntary organisations and people in need.
Our partnership with AkzoNobel (the company behind Dulux) on Community RePaint has provided a springboard from which to work on broader resource efficiency areas, and illustrates the seriousness with which larger companies are beginning to take resource efficiency.