The common use of ‘recycling’ covers the entire waste hierarchy and, according to the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management’s (CIWM) latest look at the industry, Reuse in the UK and Ireland – A State of the Nations Report, reuse has been the ‘neglected child’ of the waste hierarchy. Here MRW looks a elements of the report.
Despite many studies that analyse the barriers to and opportunities for greater reuse, it remains an under-utilised element of the UK’s resource management mix. There is a broad consensus that more could and should be done to promote and boost reuse, but a comprehensive picture of the current state of reuse and examination of the potential has been lacking.
The report provides a picture is of a resilient sector, primarily driven by a desire to deliver an anti-poverty and social need agenda to provide good quality reused items for households that need support. This key element of the reuse sector thrives on the commitment of many third sector bodies and their volunteers that remain determined to gather the resources they need to support their charitable and social aims.
Local government remains a vital element in the development of reuse. The relationships between councils and third sector organisations are variable – where they work well, they really deliver on the reuse agenda but, where they don’t, they can hold back progress. Procurement rules often hinder effective reuse strategies.
Increasingly, private sector interventions into reuse are focused on single stream, compliance regimes and the commercial realities of seeking to realise a profit on challenging materials streams. Partnerships between the private and third sectors sometimes feature, combining corporate social responsibility, legislative compliance and cost savings. This has been a positive development in recent years.
The interaction between public, private and third sector stakeholders in reuse can often be ad hoc and informal, and success is often dependent on the input of key individuals who take a strategic approach to reuse, strong partnerships where trust has built, and a mutually determined and shared set of outcomes.
The long-term outlook for reuse would also be improved by a stronger policy framework, and a legislative and fiscal landscape that is more conducive to investment in, and development of, reuse. There is a lot that the industry in its widest sense should do, with the CIWM believing it has the potential to play an important facilitating and researching role.
The CIWM survey
Online surveys were used to capture the views of stakeholders and identify good practice. The surveys focused on identifying particular strengths of the sectors as well as pulling out the key challenges and opportunities. Four sectors were targeted: local authorities (157 respondents), reuse organisations and charities (52), waste management firms (42) and housing associations (27).
Promotion and delivery of reuse
In the local authority sector, an overwhelming 94% said their council promoted reuse to residents. This is surprising because in January this year, Beasley Associates reported that most councils did not actively promote reuse.
It is possible that the most recent positive response may simply reflect the pool of authorities taking part in the survey rather than be truly representative of behaviour in relation to reuse. Alternatively, it may be that the councils are taking an overly positive view of their actions and there are varying perceptions of what it actually means to promote reuse.
Waste management organisations were asked whether they had any contractual responsibilities to undertake reuse activities, and just over half of those who responded gave a positive answer (58%). This was mainly through bulky waste collections, household waste recycling centres or delivering at specific events.
From a local authority perspective, formal contractual relationships with reuse organisations tend to be most commonly in place for textiles, while informal relationships were most common for furniture.
This marries with the economic climate for reuse. Textiles have in the past few years enjoyed a buoyant market and seen an increase in local authority interest in capturing this material from the waste stream. White goods and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) are also more likely to have a contractual relationship in place.
Contracts with waste management companies were not very common but, when they did occur, they were primarily for white goods and large WEEE. Informal relationships dominate furniture, which is also the case for local authority responses.
When council respondents were asked how effective they considered their authority to be at reuse, the overwhelming response (78%) was that they felt it was ‘poor’ or there was ‘room for improvement’ (see figure 1).
Of the 22% that consider themselves to be ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, monitoring systems are reported to be in place which appear to offer a more systematic approach to reuse, with effective partnerships and collaboration.
While many councils have worked well with reuse organisations, there are equally those where the relationship has not been successful. In the main, councils have not prioritised reuse, mainly because of financial pressures, reduced capacity and, in some cases, because of poor previous experiences of working with the reuse sector which have damaged trust.
In addition, there can be a limited understanding of what reuse actually is, with reuse terminology used interchangeably with recycling.
When asked whether there was a reuse culture embedded across their authority, 86% of council respondents stated ‘no’ or ‘don’t know’. A more positive response was received from waste management respondents, with just over half considering there to be a reuse culture embedded across their organisation.
Council respondents were asked what more could be done to embed reuse as a normalised activity. Improved public engagement and improved reuse infrastructure were considered by most to be important/very important. But on the other hand, links with poverty and employment were not regarded as significantly important by all local authority respondents. This is contrary to the message that the reuse sector is currently trying to promote in terms of the wider benefits of reuse activities.
Drivers that motivate involvement
Waste management companies were asked to identify the main drivers that motivate their involvement in reuse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, cost savings dominated the responses (see figure 2). Clearly a financial case can be made to reuse where possible.
Engaging with the reuse sector
Housing associations were asked questions to gauge their level of engagement with the reuse sector. In terms of the main reused goods, it was no surprise that furniture topped the list. The reuse sector clearly has an important role to play in provision of low-cost furniture to those without the financial means to purchase new items.
Level of reuse for different products
In the council, reuse organisation and charities, and waste management organisations sectors, respondents were asked to estimate what proportion of white goods, furniture, large WEEE, small WEEE and textiles were reused, refurbished, repaired, recycled or disposed. Some found this question difficult to answer, not having monitored their activities in enough detail to be able to give a response.
For local authorities, recycling dominates for all materials except furniture where disposal was the preferred choice. No council respondent selected repair for any of the goods collected while refurbishment featured to a small degree only for white goods/furniture.
Waste management firms selected recycling for all materials. Reuse organisations and charities selected reuse as the predominant process for all materials collected except large WEEE.
Refurbish does not feature for any of the organisations in relation to large WEEE, nor does it feature for small WEEE for local authorities and waste management organisations. Treatment and disposal is not an option for reuse organisations and charities in relation to small WEEE and textiles.
Many stakeholders expressed the view that clear, long-term Government strategies on reuse could provide a significant impetus. The observation is not limited to this area of waste policy, but reuse is seen to be in a weaker position than recycling, for example, because historically it has not had any policy drivers to support its development.
The diversity of the sector is also seen as both a potential weakness and a strength. The different agendas – environmental, economic, social – operating across the sector make for a robust business case on a number of levels, but this business case is rarely articulated in such a way as to draw the various stakeholders together effectively.
The willingness to form partnerships is often strong, but the different skill sets and capabilities mean such partnerships can be difficult to forge and manage. Commercial interest in the higher value reuse streams is sometimes at odds with the social value being sought by third sector organisations.
The lack of a strategic approach to reuse is also responsible for a sense of nervousness with regard to long-term investment for the expansion of the sector. In market terms, reuse can be characterised as an immature industry sector – in many respects it displays many of the hallmarks of the recycling sector before the latter moved up the development curve thanks to EU legislation and targets, national UK waste strategies, and targeted support and funding.
These are not easy issues to tackle. It may feel like the opportunity to champion the reuse cause is limited, but the surveys and interviews demonstrate that there is significant appetite among key stakeholder groups to rally and support the development of reuse.
Report co-authored by Beasley Associates and Ray Georgeson Resources. The original is attached to this article