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Is the waste sector having a reusable lightbulb moment?

Monday, 29 June 2015 15:28

Austerity and Ambition for Society's Waste and Welfare


It is a few days since I presented at the Resourcing the Future conference in London and I am really quite motivated and inspired by what I heard there. For the first time since I’ve worked in this sector – I think the waste management, recycling and resources sector is having a reusable lightbulb moment, and are understanding the benefit of re-use for business as well as for the people that live in the society they serve.

My session was the final session of the two day conference and I was given the honour of being last up – some say that is the headline act – I’m not sure. I had to make an impact and leave a message that would resonate. Thankfully other speakers in the session before talked with passion about changing the waste sector and concluded that a circular economy would only be possible if changes were made and ambition was real.

These speakers talked of moving away from material-based recycling tonnage targets and embracing the concept of targeting the value in discarded resources and maintaining the value of products by keeping them in use for as long as possible. I was now eager to give my speech.

Before I could begin I realised that the delegates had been sitting through over two hours of presentations; they looked tired and uncomfortable. There was only one thing for it – to make them feel human again. I asked the chair of the session to hold fire with the stopwatch and asked the audience to put down their phones and tablets, to stand up and say hello to their neighbour. Boy, did it work a treat - one delegate even tweeted: “never has standing felt so good”. Now that they felt human again – I could talk to them about the waste and resources sector they all knew about – but in the context of the human, and the part people in society and themselves could play in making a Circular Economy a reality. The whole conference took a swing away from being about what an industry, a sector, or a country could do to move to a circular economy and it became about helping all people understand that they want it too. Big ask!

The challenge

I started by addressing the reuse of waste products, the circular economy agenda, and making sure poverty alleviation was recognised as a driver for change that all stakeholders in a circular economy might embrace. I wanted to look at how we, as people, and as those that work in the industry, can be change-makers for the good of the environment and our society.

The challenge is: can we really develop a circular economy purely from a waste and resources point of view? Don’t we need the buy-in of the producers and retailers who actually control and supply consumers with these goods and services? And what about the consumer? Will they be able to deal with this major evolution of the supply and demand chain?

If the Government is ‘managing’ the economy and the State is very much in retreat, are we stuck with the status quo or worse? Who else could step-up and push for change for the environment and for a better and fairer society for people to live in?

The waste and resources sector is, and always has been, pioneering. It leads on new developments to support and protect the environment. The industry is now challenging the status quo by pushing for the adoption of circular economy principles. Change and leadership is coming from industry for a circular economy - so now the industry needs to look at whether the consumer can handle a major upheaval of the consumer society. For me, the answer is yes, if we make doing the right thing appealing rather than necessary and we must identify the social benefits as well as purely technical and financial ones.

Well matched corporate social responsibility

The greatest success that the charity reuse sector has had working with a commercial business, has been when the business has understood the social context and value involved in re-use. They’ve seen the opportunity for a service-based partnership that meets their business needs and that comes with the bonus of adding value to local communities.

These successful partnerships connect the social agenda with their people, their staff, and their customers. The connection is the ‘human’ part of people, their relation to society and their wish to help their neighbours and their own communities. The major partnerships that the small team at FRN run with major retailers and partners brought in over 78,000 furniture and electrical items saving low income families £12 million on essential goods last year in the UK. This is on top of the 3 million items supplied by our members across the UK that has saved 380,000 tonnes of CO2 and helped nearly 1 million low income households save £340 million on essential goods. The FRN has the ambition to reduce waste and support those in need in society and so do many partners we work with.

But on the downside, when we look more closely at the future of product reuse we see some barriers, and some keep increasing the height of these barriers. For instance, take the reparability of the products on the market, the access to spares that are only made available during the product’s warranty period, those a real hindrances. Today, there are some appliance manufacturers directly lobbying EU officials with the sole intent of limiting the reuse of their products. We are of the opinion that some producers are inclined to make it increasingly more difficult for us to reuse their products; if they are successful - where does that leave the ambition for a Circular Economy?

There I’ve said it and perhaps now I should come back to some of the positives. It may not surprise you that much of the impetus for a business wanting to support local social concerns is down to their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) targets.

But what we find, is that for a CSR-based partnership to work, it must mirror or match the business activities. Reuse offers costs savings and value to the customer, and key to this working, is them wanting to see real social benefit, not just in the eyes of their customers but for their staff too. If you remove the human resource from corporate social responsibility you are left with a public relations exercise.

Staff within businesses are increasingly motivated by social benefits, perhaps not always at director-level, but certainly with the staff that the Re-use sector interacts with in warehouses, in yards, and on the back of vehicles. They are motivated to help their own communities, their neighbour or someone in their family.

Reuse and Local and National Government

When we look at how the reuse sector works with Local Authorities - well we’ve all seen, heard or read about those few really good re-use activities at waste sites – so what’s stopping all the other local authorities working on Reuse?

Local Authority waste departments are guided and restrained by recycling markets and targets, but re-use is visible and local so local authorities can really do something about re-use! The initial reaction is to tell the public about the reuse operators and divert the waste to them; but this needs to be preceded by a change in infrastructure from the councils. Interestingly, one question that has been put to me recently is, “Do local authorities need to be involved in Reuse and waste prevention? Could waste prevention be the sole responsibility of society and communities?” Well, the majority of the FRN’s members are there to support those in poverty and people with other social needs - so my first reaction would be that the sector cannot subsidise the State on Waste as well as on Welfare. Although saying that, the options of such devolved responsibility could be explored.

The FRN works across different Government departments and agencies. There are real and quantifiable benefits to different Government departments and budgets through Reuse, so we basically need their leadership and ambition.

Future Reuse Partnerships and Impact

Because of austerity and welfare cuts, the reuse sector is doing what it can by stepping up to help those that cannot help themselves, but we need ambition and action from all stakeholders, to make reuse more sustainable and more impactful as a business activity and to ensure that the social and environmental benefits are preserved and increased.

Here’s an idea to ponder - Does a better society equal better business? Can a practical and focused CSR strategy bring business’ more profit and profile?

The business and public sectors have long avoided such disruption, seeing it as a problem or risk. For the resources sector it seems this kind of disruption is welcomed as a possible future and as future business.

If the various sectors have the audacity and scope to make the Circular Economy vision a reality then let’s start with reuse, and get the retailers, manufacturers and consumers involved and on-side.

Resources are scarce and demand must be balanced with supply. We need to recognise that people are an essential part of the economy. If we believe it is right to make this change and we believe that we can do it, then let’s begin and start with real ambition and with something that is practical - like re-use.

Craig Anderson OBE

Chief Executive of the Furniture Re-use Network

Twitter: @CraigAndersonUK


Read 3369 times Last modified on Thursday, 24 September 2015 15:38

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