Steve Bell, reuse development manager at FCC Environment argues that reuse requires urgent focus from government, businesses and the public.
In recent years under the Coalition Government, waste strategy developed at different paces across the United Kingdom. Each of the four nations implemented their own waste strategy and related targets and while the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales both made progressive commitments, policy in England stalled. In 2011, the Government’s Waste Review was criticised for setting no new targets or legislative drivers and subsequently there was little support for higher national recycling targets in England. Certainly the Conservative Government now faces some tough challenges to achieve the 50% recycling target by 2020 in light of England’s flat-lining recycling rate.
Meanwhile, although the UK has rubbished the idea of Europe setting new targets for recycling, MEPs have voted in favour of legally binding recycling targets for member states. It followed a plenary vote put to the European Parliament on 9 July 2015 supporting the resolution: Resource efficiency, moving towards a circular economy. Yet within this resolution, reuse is notable largely through its absence.
Indeed, earlier this year, Rreuse – the European platform representing social enterprises that are active in reuse, repair and recycling – issued a document calling for the European Commission to include greater provisions for reuse in the circular economy package.
The importance of recycling must not be understated but within this polarised debate, the continued overriding focus upon recycling means that reuse is in danger of being forgotten.
Without a collective refocusing higher up the waste hierarchy, the net result is that a significant environmental and economic opportunity will continue to be missed. In effect, we are already in a situation where industry, national and local government and the general public are so focused on recycling, that collectively we are actually preventing reuse from gaining traction.
Simply put, this is a situation which makes little financial sense and one that is compounded by out-dated legislation, namely the Environmental protection Act 1990, which makes unnecessarily difficult to reuse rather than recycle appropriate items.
A significant percentage of what households currently dispose of is not actually waste and therefore should not be recycled – the inherent value in many items, notably electrical goods but many others too, means that it makes far more sense economically to reuse them than to recycle.
Despite this, reuse continues to provide good business for some, notably those same charity shops and the traditional second-hand trading posts. It has been estimated that charities, social enterprises and other third sector organisations benefit from reuse by as much as £430m per year while WRAP estimates households benefit by £6bn annually from the reuse sector.
And it has become a significant driver in the resource management strategy for FCC Environment. Alongside the economic benefits, reuse dramatically reduces the use of raw materials necessary to manufacture new products which in turn significantly reduces CO2e emissions. In 2012, 1.5m tonnes of CO2e were saved by reuse in the UK.
But to realise the full potential of reuse, a change in legislation is required which makes it possible for waste and resource management companies to operate effectively, without falling foul of the existing regulations, and fulfil wider environmental as well as economic commitments.
Only with that change in legislation, can we truly move from a presumption to dispose (and recycle), to a presumption to reuse and this also requires a pragmatic approach in terms of the remit of waste and resource management companies. These companies can only sell items suitable for reuse – refurbishment must take place further along the supply chain. In addition, the waste and resource management sector cannot take responsibility for the buyer’s actions. It is a concern that has always dogged the subject of reuse, yet the purchase of items by unscrupulous businesses can be addressed relatively simply by pricing those items at a level which removes the possibility of financial gain. This effectively prevents goods intended for reuse being bought and later sold as waste.
Similarly, the movement of waste to foreign countries is beyond the scope or control of the waste and resource management sector. We should be clear that reuse items from the UK are in high demand in developing countries and that this represents a significant commercial opportunity which also delivers the social and environmental benefits that underpin all reuse projects. But this trade must be subject to the proper controls and auditing, by the relevant authorities.
There are many other barriers to achieving greater participation in reuse. To achieve a real step change, not only is a change in legislation required, guidance for local authorities as well as the general public is necessary.
A reuse standard which sets out how waste and resource management companies operate could instil confidence in their customers and further improve reuse rates. Any such standard must be produced with pragmatism however – more red tape is not what the industry needs.
Driving the behavioural change that is also required is a long term process but one which the shifts in attitude towards recycling indicate is eminently achievable. Communications initiatives have a significant role to play and with the right infrastructure in place – facilitated by new legislation – the waste and resource management industry can tackle many of the more problematic issues impacting on reuse participation such as the storage and collection of bulky items.
The shift from disposing unwanted goods as waste to treating them as a valuable resource is one of the great cultural changes of recent years – it underpins FCC Environment’s business strategy. But it is time to take the next step and realise the scale of the economic, social and environmental opportunity that reuse presents.