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Refurbishment model gets new lease of life

A community recycling group has been ‘recreated’ to boost WEEE reuse and provide jobs and training for the unemployed. Katie Coyne reports

A year after the charity Create Liverpool was forced to close, former chief executive Greg Walker is back with a resurrection plan of sorts. Create Liverpool had been refurbishing fridges, washing machines and cookers for around 15 years as well as providing work experience and training for more than 2,500 unemployed across Merseyside. At its inception it was a very innovative three-way public, private and voluntary sector partnership. And by 2009/2010 it had a turnover of £3m and 50 staff working across 10 sites including retail outlets where the refurbished goods were sold.

Yet despite its good work, two events conspired to make the operation no longer viable. Firstly, the well documented soaring price of scrap made it more lucrative to send white goods to WEEE recyclers in the UK rather than to be refurbished by Create UK. This meant that they often bypassed the charity completely. Or if old white goods were offered to Create Liverpool, the organisation was asked for - as Walker puts it – “ridiculous” prices for items that had previously been given free of charge. This refurbishment side of the charity accounted for around a third of its turnover.

Second, the coalition Government scrapped the Future Jobs Fund, which Create Liverpool relied on heavily for its training and employment operation, which accounted for around £2m of its turnover. The fund was replaced with the Work Programme, which worked on a payment by results basis. Unfortunately, Create could not afford to fund up-front the quantities of people it had been. “It’s a classic Tory idea, payment on result,” says Walker. “I can understand wanting to pay by performance but the Government didn’t look at the whole fund properly.”

At Jaguar Land Rover, for example, Create Liverpool found 120 people to work on the new Evoque Range Rover. At the end of the six month placement 102 of those were kept on. But under the new Work Programme fund, Create couldn’t afford to pay for the placements up front. “I don’t have a few million pounds stashed away anywhere,” says Walker.

The trustees fought to save the charity. Walker included himself in a round of redundancies as part of the streamlining of the operation. But sadly, it had to close in May last year. And while it shut its doors having paid off all its debts, it left behind a sense of disquiet.

“All of us felt that there was an injustice done,” says Walker. “Create was doing a superb job providing refurbished goods and training and work opportunities – and through no fault of its own, its two income streams were taken away almost overnight. But there was still the need for refurbished goods for low income households and jobs for unemployed people.”

Walker adds: “There’s always been a shortage of refurbished products, we’ve never had enough products to meet demand.”

And as well as leaving behind a sense of injustice, the charity left behind sister charity– Create UK. Originally set up as a vehicle for the organisation’s national work, Walker saw it as an opportunity to get back into refurbishing goods and providing work and training opportunities for the unemployed. So 12 months after leaving Create Liverpool, Walker is now Create UK operations director.

Why will things be different this time around? Because of a “sea change”, according to Walker. He says that there is a greater awareness of the importance of reuse, regardless of whether Government incentives or drivers are in place. “We thought there was a lot of interest and a move towards reuse for environmental benefits.”

There’s no strong piece of legislation prioritising electrical items for refurbishment over recycling – as many would argue that there ought to be – but there are a few steps in the right direction. Walker points to the Recast of the WEEE Directive, which says manufacturers must not prevent WEEE from being reused.

The Social Value Act may also be beneficial to charities like Create UK. This piece of legislation requires that when local authorities are weighing up whether to award a contract they must consider the social values that a service provider will bring - such as providing employment opportunities for those out of work - in addition to the standard contract specification.

Walker says making the charity successful in the current climate is still a “challenge” and Create UK must first focus on establishing the refurbishment side of the business. Then next year, Walker says it will look at consolidating this and then looking at starting to offer employment and training opportunities, which is the side of the operation that Walker holds close to his heart.

The business model of Create UK aims to be wider than that of Create Liverpool and it eventually plans to refurbish a wide range of WEEE and not just white goods. Instead of running its own charity shops across Merseyside like Create Liverpool, it aims to become a reuse hub and take WEEE from compliance schemes, waste management companies, recyclers, retailers and local authorities and pull out any potentially reusable goods. Rather than be in competition with these organisations it will be working with them. The products will be refurbished to the new PAS 141 specifications and supplied to charities and community groups for sale.

The charity has two warehouse units in Speke, Merseyside, and is renting some of its space there to fellow recyclers to offset costs while making sure it has enough space to expand and develop. These include social enterprise scheme Cara Recycling – which sorts, bulks and bales cardboard, paper, cans and plastics- and a national battery recycler.

Create UK has also been donated £15,000 from household goods retailer Perfect Home, which the charity is using to buy and insure a 3.5 tonne collection vehicle and buy weighing scales. The organisation also has a contract with Veolia, which manages household waste sites across Merseyside, and its partner Viridor, to supply fridges for Create UK to refurbish and resell.

In April, Create UK took over three industrial units in Norwich to replicate the Merseyside model and develop a reuse hub there. At the time of going to press it was in talks with private, public and third sector organisations and has commissioned a piece of research to help it formulate a viable business model. Create UK hopes to have the operation up and running by the end of the year and aims to expand its work nationally.

Walker argues that there is “absolutely” a place for social enterprises in the waste and recycling industry, provided they work professionally. “We did not want the 15 years of success with Create Liverpool to go to waste,” says Walker. “We’ve built on its foundations and revived its ethos, moving the social enterprise business model forward in the recycling sector with Create UK.”

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