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Opportunities for the circular economy from reuse

With apparent over-capacity for disposal treatments and flatlining recycling rates, policy attention is being pulled up the waste hierarchy by a grass roots-led momentum to focus on reuse.

Increasingly talked about, and a long time passion of the ‘green’ agenda, reuse is now being critically appraised as a commercial opportunity for effective resource management.

Reuse is widely recognised in terms of the economic, social and environmental benefits it can deliver. It is also emerging as a principal driver in resource management strategies and in the continued development of the circular economy.

For some, notably charity shops and traditional second-hand trading posts, reuse has always been good business as well as delivering a service for local communities and is, therefore, nothing new. It is more of a challenge for local authorities in moving away from the process of ‘collect, treat, dispose’. But it can be addressed, for example, by ramping up reuse through incorporation into household waste recycling centres.

Resource Futures has worked with North Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Warwickshire councils to offer advice on how to implement more reuse with community engagement, and has produced a series of ‘how-to’ guides for WRAP on developing reuse initiatives (visit how-guides-0).

Schemes such as WRAP’s Innovation in Waste Prevention Fund support communities to take forward innovative waste prevention, reuse and repair activities in their areas, working in partnership with local businesses, councils, charities and voluntary groups.

Communities can get involved with waste management on a social level with projects like the Lower House Farm Recycling Centre in Atherstone, Warwickshire, home to the largest on-site reuse shop in the country and operated by Age UK Warwickshire. Resource Futures has been working alongside WRAP at the site to develop consumer-facing communications to help get the reuse message out to the public.

The results of reuse suggest that it is emerging as a key player in waste management. Charities, social enterprises and other third sector organisations benefit from reuse by an estimated £430m a year. By keeping goods in circulation for longer, and by offering more affordable products, WRAP estimates households benefitted by an estimated £6bn annually from the reuse sector. In addition, with fewer raw materials needed for the production of new goods, less is sent to landfill. In 2012 alone, 1.5 million tonnes of CO2e were saved by reuse in the UK.

Recent work with private sector companies also suggests that there are significant benefits to be realised. For example, Resource Futures has undertaken business modelling with Phineas Group, a Bristol-based manufacturer of shoe hangers, and demonstrated that a new business model focused on the reuse of shoe hangers results in higher financial and carbon savings in the company’s existing model or one based on recycling.

Such social, financial and environmental benefits are the unifying characteristics of reuse projects. The Community RePaint project, which aims to repurpose unused household paint for community and individual projects around the UK, has seen tangible results. In 2014, it tackled the problem of paint being thrown away by supporting 76 repaint schemes, redistributing 300,000 litres that would otherwise have gone to waste. This project saves resources, money and helps with social cohesion.

Community RePaint project

But there are barriers to achieving participation in reuse behaviours. For example, bulky waste collection and the storage of items that are no longer wanted can create unwanted problems for individuals and organisations.

Attitudes to unwanted items can also be problematic. If an item has ceased to be useful from a householder perspective, it can be seen to have no value, and there is a pervasive belief that second-hand goods are of a poorer quality than brand new and so represent poor value for money.

These problems are being tackled with engagement on preferred reuse behaviours, through effective communications initiatives.

Bristol Re-Use is a new network of cross-sector organisations in the city which encourage individuals, community groups and businesses to reuse in innovative ways to reduce waste. The project is funded by a strategic grant from Bristol 2015, a company established by the city council to manage the city’s year as European Green Capital, and reaches out to all corners of the community in Bristol.

It aims to maximise the effectiveness of its members, which are drawn from social enterprises, community groups, businesses and public authorities, and to develop an engaging approach to educate on reuse and encourage participation. It acts as an exemplar of the grass-roots circular economy and ways to change behaviours and affect the local community positively.

Lower House Farm Recycling Centre

Another example of successful community engagement is Bicester Green. Resource Futures teamed up with local authorities and community action groups in Oxfordshire to create a repair and refurbish project. This benefits the community through providing reasonably priced items and skills training as well as advocating sustainable living.

While reuse faces challenges in terms of resourcing and attitudes, the work already being done throughout the UK is testament to its emerging significance within the waste management sector. With the correct expertise and resources, reuse can be a viable and exciting resource management method, bringing together communities in social enterprise and cohesion.

Using reuse as a focus for broader community action, waste management can align itself with environmental and social values in a meaningful and positive way.  

Jane Stephenson is chief executive of Resource Futures

Case study

Community Action Groups

The Community Action Group (CAG) project in Oxfordshire began in 2001 as a partnership between the Recycling Consortium (now Resource Futures) and Oxfordshire County Council. The project consists of more than 50 groups across the county at the forefront of community-led climate change action.

The network runs more than 1,000 events and projects a year, attended by 60,000 local residents. Issues covered including waste, transport, food, energy and biodiversity.

After being announced as the leading area in the country for community activism by Co-operatives UK, CAG Oxfordshire took a pioneering step with the Community Impact Modelling Tool. It allows local groups to collect and store data from community-based events and combines it with up-to-date research from national bodies to generate quantifiable impact outputs.

Since 2013, the CAG network has been collecting data, and 1,051 events attended by 46,742 residents were recorded between April 2013 and March 2014. Volunteers put in 16,057 hours – almost two years – of free time, worth an equivalent of £208,255.

The cost savings for consumers, from free events such as swap shops and ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ workshops, was £178,933, and groups brought in more than £443,000 in grants and social enterprise income. The 68 swap shops held in 2013-14 saved 30 tonnes of waste and 46 tonnes of carbon emissions alone.


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