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Have a seat for a lesson in reuse

Everyone has a story about bulky waste. The sofa in the front garden, the mattress at the bus stop, the fridge in the corner of the car park.

A quick survey of researchers and staff at the RSA uncovered a plethora of anecdotes, mostly told with enthusiastic exasperation. Matthew P suffered from a large sofa blocking his hallway that the landlord had promised but apparently ‘forgotten’ to remove. Jonathan R felt guilty from having to take a mattress to the dump which was almost-new, apart from a small stain which meant that the local charity would not accept it.

Such problems are not new. In a 1968 lecture given at the RSA, FLD Flintoff noted that “bulky refuse is a fairly new problem, but it is growing fast”. In the UK we now produce around 1.6million tonnes of this large-item waste stream every year, and most of it ends up buried in landfill or burnt in an incinerator.

The RSA Great Recovery’s latest report, Rearranging the Furniture, is about our design residency project run in partnership with waste management firm Suez and focused on furniture waste.

The brief was to conduct an observation-based ‘residency’ with four designers over 10 days, gathering insights into their methods, while also providing ideas on how product or system redesign could enable more furniture to be reused rather than scrapped.

It enabled the designers to learn about the end-of-life destinations of some of the products they were creating, and to provide some valuable design thinking into the processes of waste disposal that they witnessed.

We visited a community recycling centre in Leatherhead, various sorting and retail outlets of the Surrey Reuse Network, and went behind the scenes at Ikea. We spoke to experts from the Furniture Re-use Network (FRN), the SKA rating programme for commercial interiors, and the waste team at Warwickshire County Council.

And we also conducted a ‘tear-down’ exercise on a sofa fished out of a landfill skip, which was in great condition but missing its fire label and therefore not re-sellable by reuse charities. Finally, we convened a round table discussion between designers, waste managers and other stakeholders at Fab Lab London.

The project was picked up by Camira, a UK-based textile manufacturer, which wanted to develop new fabric for our ex-landfill sofa using waste offcuts from its suppliers.

The next stop was Clerkenwell Design Week, where we got members of the public to make buttons for the sofa, and talked to them about the challenges of designing furniture for a more circular economy (CE). The sofa is now on display at RSA House, and will form part of our display at Fab Lab London during London Design Festival.

One of the report’s main messages was about the importance of reuse rather than recycling. According to Craig Anderson, FRN chief executive, the organisation brought in more than 78,000 furniture and electrical items last year, saving families on low incomes £12m on essential goods. This is on top of the three million items supplied by FRN’s members across the UK that have saved 380,000 tonnes of CO2.

Anderson commented: “If the various sectors have the audacity and scope to make the CE vision a reality, then let’s start with reuse and get the retailers, manufacturers and consumers on-side.”

If the design model that most fits with a CE is one of design for longevity, then reuse is the means of extending a product’s longevity. And for a revolution in reuse to take place, designers, waste managers, retailers, citizens and councils must all recognise the critical difference between recycling and reuse.

Manufacturers must create items that can be passed on, with fire labels that cannot be cut off and materials that endure. Residents must be aware of the reuse alternatives to bringing their sofas to the dump. There must be incentives for staff at waste sites to separate reusable goods from recyclable. Councils must ensure that reuse is specified in their contracts with waste managers.

And waste managers must begin to consider their role as resource stewards, providing a platform and a service for the reallocation of valuable items. Ultimately, all these actors must have a view to the lifetime of the product, and look outside the narrow remit of their job description to see the chain reaction that their decisions will have.    

Lucy Chamberlin is head of the RSA’s Great Recovery Programme

The RSA Great Recovery’s report, ‘Rearranging the Furniture’ can be downloaded at www.thersa.org

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