Housing associations deal with a lot of materials in one way or another, whether through construction, estate management or services for their residents. But the sector’s regulator, the Homes & Communities Agency, has not set any targets or standards covering recycling and resource management.
The National Housing Federation (NHF) – the trade body for associations – is no better. When questioned, a spokesperson admitted to MRW: “Unfortunately, we do not have anything on this nor do we engage with our members on waste at all.”
Associations are often involved in non-housing-related schemes that benefit the community, such as employment, so why not recycling? A few pioneering schemes could show the way, as some of this year’s entries for the National Recycling Awards reveal.
A Chartered Institution of Wastes Management survey for its reuse report had a low response from associations, with just 27 taking part. The report calls for greater collaboration between reuse groups and housing associations.
With a high turnover of tenants moving in and out of their homes, making a link with bulky waste collections seems an obvious step for housing associations to take. There have been attempts to push this nationally before – back in 2007 the Furniture Reuse Network published a guide along with the NHF to extoll the benefits of associations and reuse charities forming partnerships. Since then there has been very little progress.
Some people are still banging the drum. Nick Oettinger, founder and managing director of the Furniture Recycling Group (FRG), thinks that statutory recycling targets and increased landfill costs have made it increasingly important for social landlords to invest in recycling initiatives.
“Housing organisations and authorities that build waste recycling and reuse into their sustainability plans are not only taking another big step towards operating a triple bottom line approach [social, environmental and financial], but are also beginning to pave the way for responsible business practice and becoming advocates of the circular economy,” he says.
“According to a report by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, waste management, energy efficiency, source reduction and waste exchange can be grouped together as ‘eco efficiency’, which is a necessary requirement in achieving sustainable consumption – something that needs to be high on the agenda for housing associations and social landlords.”
Oettinger says that around 1,600,000 tonnes of bulky waste is thrown out in the UK each year, around 19% of which falls into the textile category, largely made up of sofas and mattresses. This is why the FRG set up a sister company, R&R Beds, to supply low-cost, quality mattresses to low-income families in social housing. Old mattresses are collected and dismantled by the FRG and the materials are used to make new ones by R&R. So far the companies have recycled more than 700,000 mattresses.
“Currently, R&R Beds is trialling a project with the Ivy Street Community Centre, which is based in a deprived area of Blackburn,” says Oettinger. “The project will address furniture poverty among residents by providing them with low-cost recycled mattresses. We also supply recycled mattresses to Blackburn with Darwen Council’s housing needs department, and [association] Twin Valley Homes, which now buys all of its mattresses from R&R Beds.”
So a few housing associations and other social housing providers are taking up the resources agenda. But some community groups want to go much further.
Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Council (SLNC) is based in a deprived area of Leicester, and is run by residents and representatives from local organisations. Its first foray into building affordable housing has resulted in 68 new homes, which include flats and bungalows. It has build the homes under the Passivhaus eco-standard in order to save tenants up to 80% on their energy bills. It means the group has also closely considered waste and resources.
The scheme was championed by SLNC head of development Neil Hodgkin, who had already set up a 12-acre urban community farm to provide education and volunteering opportunities. This was funded partly by money from Biffa via the Landfill Communities Fund and from Tesco through the carrier bag charge fund.
The housing development is the first he has worked on, and he brings an awareness of resource management that many housing organisations lack. The SLNC is currently looking for a food waste buyer to power a heating source.
“All the new houses have a water butt because that is part of the housing code – but it’s not the same with waste. Why not have a brown bin for food waste and we can take that and compost it?”
Hodgkin says: “We used the money to clear the food-growing project site – there is a municipal waste tip less than a mile away. That [former brownfield] site is now really biodiverse. It’s all tied in with the housing in a holistic approach – hopefully, we will use some of the green waste as compost.
“We want to work with the housing association and get them interested. For example, all the new houses have a water butt because that is part of the housing code – but it’s not the same with waste.
“But why not have a brown bin for food waste and we can take that and compost it? It’s not a big deal for us because we can literally come by with our tractor and tip them in once a month.”
For Hodgkin, reuse and recycling are necessities borne of a lack of funding more than anything else. For instance, the SLNC takes wood chippings from tree surgeons in Leicester to use on paths. It also benefited from the housing scheme’s construction phase by reusing discarded sewer pipes as tree holders.
“It has always been [a case of] how to beg, steal and borrow because we haven’t got enough resources. Recycling for us isn’t a ‘green’ thing; it’s so we can get by.”
The homes were delivered by two housing associations, Westleigh and EMH Homes, and without their expertise it would not have been possible. But the SLNC also wants to educate associations to think holistically.
“Now that tenants are moving in, we want to build up the relationship with them and the housing association,” says Hodgkin. “With a new community, they are either going to have furniture they need to get rid of or buying new furniture and white goods and need to get rid of a large amount of packaging waste. What would be really clever is to do regular waste pickups over a few months.
“We are looking to work with the All Saints Action Network in the West Midlands, which does estate-wide recycling services. It is purely a community group which picks up bulky goods and they’re looking to get into social housing.
“The city council is trying to do a furniture recycling programme but is struggling. We’ve got a charity shop over the road, so we do furniture and clothing recycling but this is limited to the transport and staff that can be mustered. People deliver their goods to the shop but they struggle to deal with larger items.
“Poorer households are less likely to have access to the necessary transport. That’s where you see a lot of waste thrown out on the street – it’s because people haven’t got the capacity themselves.”
After the first phase of development, the SLNC is involved in a further £1.6m housing project on the same site. Community-led housing is an expanding sector following the enactment of ‘right to build’ legislation, under which local authorities have a duty to assist developments put forward by community groups.
There is great potential for social housing providers to get involved in resource management of bulky items, estates design, paint recycling, construction waste and many other areas. Pioneers like Oettinger and Hodgkin could be examples for others to follow.
What are housing associations?
Housing associations are independent, not-for-profit companies set up to provide affordable homes for people in housing need. They vary in size from fewer than 10 homes, to more than 50,000.
In 2014-15, housing associations are estimated to have built around 46,000 affordable homes in England – this equates to around 37% of all homes that year.
Altogether, associations provide about two million homes for five million people across England. Some also offer support for people with a range of needs including older people,and those with disabilities and learning difficulties.
Source: National Housing Federation
Innovative recycling/housing partnerships
Tendring Reuse and Employment Enterprise, Greenfields Community Housing and Braintree District Council (winners of the Public-Private Sector Partnership award)
Tendring provides bulky waste collection and disposal services on behalf of Braintree council. It diverts discarded furniture and appliances from landfill to community shopping outlets. It provides void property clearance services, allocating any surpluses from sales of cleared items to a fund for those in crisis in the local community to receive free furniture and appliances.
Bron Afon Community Housing, Reseiclo and The Really Amazing Charity (winners of the Best Business Partnership award)
Bron Afon’s recycling centre provides products and materials for local charities.
Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and Solihull Community Housing (shortlisted for Communications Award – Public Sector)
Working with its waste collection contractor Amey and social housing provider Solihull Community Housing, the council’s waste and recycling team has put in place a scheme to enhance and increase recycling participation at 37 high-rise blocks of flats. Each block received at least one bin for mixed recycling and one bin for glass.