Transformative nature of Reuse

Social Firms Conference Report

Green-Works’ CEO Colin Crooks started the For What it’s Worth seminar on recycling by taking off his wedding ring. He held up the five grammes of white gold and said that its production had required “33 tonnes of ore to be extracted from the ground which was then soaked in cyanide to release the gold.  Just a few years ago cyanide soaked sludge from a Romanian gold mine flooded into theDanube causing an environmental disaster”

Gold is not alone in being intensely polluting and inefficient. Manufactured products take more than ten times their own mass to produce on average. Colin’s message was clear: “we should lock in the value of the product. Re-use and simple re-manufacturing are vastly more effective than recycling.”

In a significant step towards conservation recycling has become part of everyday behaviour in much of the world. Yet recycling has never been the most ecologically sound way of dealing with waste. There is a growing argument for moving up the EU’s waste hierarchy onto re-use.

Re-use creates six times less carbon emissions than recycling. Even more interestingly for social entrepreneurs, re-use operations employ 24 people for every one it takes to man an industrial recycling plant.

In 10 years Green-Works has trained and employed more than 800 disadvantaged young people in its furniture re-use business. Jobs involve everything from removing unwanted furniture from local authorities and corporate companies, to re-manufacturing redundant goods into desirable new products, not to mention customer services, transport, admin and marketing.

Others are grasping the prospects offered by re-use. Greenwich Borough Council recently launched a pilot project recruiting people to re-use white goods alongside its waste management team. Unwanted fridges and other valuable utilities are recovered, repaired, cleaned and delivered to community projects that need them.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s administration has granted the London Community Resource Network (LCRN) £8million to build a London Reuse Network with the aim of enabling Londoners to re-use anything.

There are problems amongst all this opportunity. Local councils have budgets for recycling, but not for re-use. Green audits in both councils and private companies reward recycling while ignoring re-use. More than one local authority representative at For What it’s Worth said that far from being incentivised to support re-use, they’re actively prevented from doing so by the bureaucratic architecture of local government.

Re-use programmes are also more difficult and expensive than recycling, which largely explains why big private contractors typically shred everything and recycle what they can. Re-use requires more careful management as unwanted materials must be looked after and either matched up with new owners or turned into valuable new products. Yet the effort seems worthwhile, given that an office desk made of chipboard takes more energy than steel to produce and most end up in landfill.

Colin illustrated the potentially transformative nature of re-use with a story from his days on a computer rebuilding project in 1980s’ Brixton. He met two young Jamaican men at a New Deal interview. When offered a free word processing course one replied “so you want us to wear high heels do you?” In his eyes typing was for girls, so they both agreed to help Colin’s team fix broken computers instead. In four weeks they learned to fix a computer and gained a qualification. Describing the scene Colin said “they’ve been told, for most of their lives, they’re useless and they’ve just fixed a computer which other people can’t work out under exam conditions. It’s just the most incredible lift in confidence.”

At the time Colin’s job was to make this computer project commercially viable and he got the whole team together to discuss increasing sales. One of the New Deal recruits suggested putting signs on each computer advertising the quality of the new technology, smart software and great prices. Everyone agreed this was a brilliant idea. The next day this same young man and his friend walked back into Colin’s office and asked to go on that word processing course. Colin says “you train people in re-use and they start to see there’s a need for skills they couldn’t appreciate before.”

In wrapping up the seminar Social Firms UK’s Sara McGinley asked the assembled local authorities and social entrepreneurs what’s needed to escalate the re-use movement. Several people recognised the business case is tight as it is more expensive than recycling. However there was agreement that the social value is inordinately higher and this needs to be recognised in contracts.

After 20 years of campaigns recycling is now highly practiced in the UKand Green-Works’ experience suggests re-use has the potential to radically scale up. With higher costs, yet added possibilities to transform lives, social entrepreneurs are hoping to turn political support into real momentum. Anyone interested in launching a re-use venture in London should contact the LCRN for access to funding and joint tendering opportunities.