For decades it meant only charity shops, flea markets or jumble sales, but now reusing goods is finally embraced within national waste strategy
“I used to go to the national reuse conferences,” remembers Richard Featherstone. “Everyone would be saying, ‘The council’s not listening. No one’s listening. Everyone’s got other priorities.’ And that has changed. People want to talk to us. Not only are we approaching councils and housing associations, but they are approaching us. That’s new.”
Featherstone is development manager of the London Re-Use Network. This year, in case you hadn’t heard, he shot up 67 places to 29th in the “Hot 100”, the list of the biggest cheeses in waste management according to Resource magazine. Even so, 29th looks like scant acknowledgement of the fact that, by linking many different charities who collect, repair and sell unwanted items, and connecting them to a single disposal Hotline number (and website), the LRN has shown for the first time how reuse can create jobs (44 so far in the LRN), reduce waste, and really, seriously work.
Until recently, your local authority had neither the resources, nor the reason to push reuse. How were they going to mend your washing machine or sell your sofa? Gradually, however, European and domestic legislation has raised both the cost of landfill, now taxed at £80/tonne, and recycling targets. (Only determined lobbying got reuse included as part of “recycling”, or else councils would have been effectively penalised for supporting it.) As a result, for councils at any rate, not re-using began to become the bigger hassle.
And so, in 2009, after much badgering, the Greater London Authority finally included reuse in their waste strategy. At the time, among those charities that measured it, 4,000 tonnes of goods were being reused around the city each year. In 2010, the LWaRB ( London Waste and Recycling Board) awarded £4.3m to set up the LRN, which gathered those charities together into a tighter unit that would now collect, mend and sell pretty much all furniture, household appliances, electronic goods, bicycles and paint. The network has evolved to the point that residents of eight participating boroughs just have to contact the Re-Use hotline or website to have their stuff removed from their home for the same price as a council bulky waste collection (generally around £20). Today the rate is 12,000 tonnes, and the only thing keeping it from rising faster is the shortage of vans.
Reusers from Birmingham have been in touch to find out how they can develop a network of their own, and ideas are being swapped with the energetic and forward-thinking Zero Waste Scotland. Links are also being formed with some of the smaller groups working independently around the country. “We have interest from all over the place,” Featherstone says, and you can see why. This, pretty clearly, is how it’s done.
I meet Featherstone one sunny morning at one of the links in the chain at Smugglers Way waste transfer station in Wandsworth. Here, alongside the usual public recycling bays, is a new area devoted to collecting items for reuse. Behind the scenes, with the help of Groundwork, the LRN has also fitted out Re-Work, essentially two sheds – one with a designer and her team, who rebuild and respray furniture to make it valuable again, the other with engineers trained in mending cookers, fridges, dryers, washing machines and dishwashers. A row of machines, all white, shrink-wrapped and guaranteed for a year, sits outside on the Tarmac, waiting to be taken away in the next charity van. Often, Re-Work’s manager Keith Perdicou tells me, there is very little mending needed.
“We get washing machines in, and the first thing the boys do is take the filter out. They’ll find there’s five pence stuck in the water pump. There are several different things like that. Probably 50% of the machines that come through we put down as ‘no fault’.” Featherstone reckons 25%, but they basically agree: it’s plenty.
Even when a repair is needed, it is often simple. Replacing the switch on the door, that’s a common one, or even just cleaning out the rubber seal. (They get mouldy after months without hot washes or biological powder.) Indeed it is Featherstone’s dream that Re-Work might soon form a partnership with a manufacturer, through which they would exchange what their engineers learn about appliances in the real world for the sponsorship of another engineer. What was once a few guys tinkering with a few machines in scattered sheds is now a professional outfit that sends out around 80 mended appliances each week. It could easily, they believe, be more.
For reusers, the wasteless nirvana would be something called “the circular economy”. And since 2012, the designers Sophie Thomas and Nat Hunter have been been running a scheme, The Great Recovery, which is trying to realise it, by encouraging other designers to create products that will never become junk. While London’s reuse network is already looking practical, Thomas admits that the global circularity she seeks is still a long way off. “It’s just beginning to be grappled with, I think,” she says. “It’s such a big, complex thing.”
There are laws that discourage reuse, for example. The Trades Descriptions Act prohibits you from calling a product “new” if it contains even one reconditioned part. Safety laws are another problem: a part certified safe in the US might not be legally safe in the UK, despite being, you know, safe. Thomas points out that many firms want to reuse – both to impress consumers and to take control of the resources they need, at a time when the supply of raw materials can be intermittent. “In 2010 a third of the profit warnings that came out of the FTSE 500 were resource price related,” Thomas says. “So businesses are feeling the pressure.”
Cleverer laws would help. Companies could be required by law to design more carefully so that parts can be easily reused. They could get licensing fees when their components are reused in new machines, giving them economic motivation to design components worth recovering. There might also be ways to encourage more leasing of products all round, which is inherently less wasteful. “We were talking to BAM construction about a road they had built in the Netherlands,” says Thomas by way of example. “They were paid when the road was in use. If it broke, or if it got pot-holes and they had to repair it, they lost their income. So the incentive was there for them to make a road that would last.”
In West12 shopping centre, in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, customers are prowling around the floor of a huge shop, eyeing attractively presented tables and chairs, clean sofas, or a neat row of fridges and washing machines, much as they might in DFS or Dixons. This is the end of the reuse cycle – and also the beginning. The shop was opened last February by Furnish, a charity affiliated with the LRN who collect, distribute and sell reused appliances and furniture. Most items come through the Re-Use Hotline, some from Re-Work, and some through the dealer-takeback scheme, in which retailers remove old items from people’s houses when they deliver new ones. It is the biggest reuse shop in London and, so far as anybody here knows, the biggest in Britain.
The prices here really are unbeatable, and there are still deeper discounts for customers who receive benefits. They can buy a good double bed with a new mattress for about £100, a reconditioned Bosch washing machine for just £150, or something less illustrious for £80. “If it’s nice, things they go really quickly,” says Andrea Feller, the store manager. Although in truth most things go soon enough, and there’s a high turnover of stock. “There’s always new bits every day,” she says, “usually around a van full”.
There’s not the salesman sparkle about Furnish that you might find in a conventional high-street showroom. Nor the chutzpah of Petit Miracles, the upcycling store upstairs. Yet it is dignified and practical, and very much a showroom. Part of the philosophy here is that people need to pay a small amount for their goods in order to take pleasure in owning them, and thus feel like taking care of them too. Charles Craft, who is managing director of London Re-Use, remembers a 22-year-old woman visiting Furnish with a £180 voucher from her housing association. She bought a washing machine and a fridge, and even had enough left over for a table and chairs, but afterwards was found crying. “She had never dreamed in her life she’d be able to sit at a dining table and have a meal,” Craft says afterwards, back out among the crowds. “It’s great to engage in political forums and with boroughs, but when you actually see people benefiting …” I lose his words among the hubbub.
Correction: an earlier version of this article said that the funding for the LRN had come from the GLA. This has now been corrected: the source of the funding was the LWaRB ( London Waste and Recycling Board).