We are all familiar with the waste hierarchy and the mantra ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. But, sadly, I have concerns that there is still a focus among the public and policy-makers on recycling.
We should not be complacent, but recycling is much more of a norm now and the message to householders is fairly simple. We also have targets for recycling and the means to measure it.
But the proposition is not so clear as we go further up the hierarchy. Lots of very clever people have spent a lot of time trying to get universally applicable waste prevention and reuse metrics, and the drivers for behaviour change are equally challenging.
People are aware of the environmental benefits of recycling – perhaps not the specifics and the numbers, but they know it is the right thing to do. Recycle Now and other initiatives have raised the profile and awareness of recycling but we don’t have similar initiatives, with similar widespread impact, for reuse.
Reuse is a win-win-win situation: it has clear environmental, economic and social benefits. A quick look at the Furniture Reuse Network (FRN) website highlights some these benefits: 118,350 tonnes of material saved from landfill, 126,500 tonnes of CO2 saved and 1.5 million low-income families helped by diverting furniture and electrical equipment to people in need.
Added to this we have the training, volunteering and work experience opportunities that reuse provides.
But large amounts of good usable items such as furniture, electricals, toys and textiles are still thrown in the bin and end up in landfill. Some developing countries, where the wastes management systems are not well established, appear to observe the waste hierarchy better than us. Parts of Africa, for example, may be not good at treatment and disposal, but they have waste prevention and reuse nailed.
In many countries the only things that end up in dumps are those that have no value, either as whole items or components. There is no stigma to buying second-hand and, in many cases, second-hand well-known brands are much more prized than less well-known new items.
Reuse is a relatively neglected area of UK waste policy and yet one which has so much to offer in practical terms and as a vehicle to raise wider awareness about waste prevention. The more I see examples of reuse and the organisations that work in this sector, the more impressed I am by them.
The staff and volunteers have an enthusiasm and passion for the sector that they work in, caring deeply about the charities they represent and the people they help. Receiving the support of a reuse charity can be life-changing to people in need and it can give them hope and pride. We should be supporting this on a personal and policy level.
White goods reuse
My support for reuse and that of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) was recently demonstrated when we launched a report on reuse at my CIWM presidential inauguration. The report finds that while the business case for reuse is broad – encompassing environmental, economic and social benefits – it is rarely articulated effectively.
Financial constraints are also an issue, with the need for more infrastructure and collection services, better communications and public engagement, and more good practice guidance highlighted by many people in the reuse sector.
Reuse is no different from waste and resources in that partnerships appear to be the key to success. People who contributed to the research identified the need for more co-ordination and collaborative working between key industry bodies active in the reuse realm to support best practice, along with knowledge sharing to maximise the impact of existing communications campaigns.
Capacity and skills building is also identified as a priority, and a range of practical actions are proposed, including networking events to bring different stakeholders together and promote engagement and understanding of the opportunities. Given the diverse nature of reuse organisations and the significant number of micro-enterprises that characterise the sector, additional skills support is also recommended.
Another area where reuse does not differ from the rest of the waste and resource sector is the need for a more robust policy framework. This could include specific reuse targets, incentivisation through extended producer responsibility schemes and standardised data collection metrics to improve reporting and benchmarking.
We need to ensure that, when we are developing waste policy and legislation, we respect the whole of the waste hierarchy and not just start at recycling
To steal from report co-author Jane Beasley: “We have an obligation as a collective industry to support the progress of this sector and maximise the opportunities that reuse can bring.”
Margaret Bates is the professor of sustainable wastes management at the University of Northampton