Could the Waste Sector help reduce Poverty for millions of UK households?
asks Craig Anderson of the Furniture Re-use Network
There is a direct link between current waste management approaches handling unwanted household goods – such as furniture and electrical appliances – and poverty levels in the UK.
There are some problems – like resource shortages – which will affect us all, globally; and problems – like poverty - that affect only some people.
We’d suggest that the waste management industry and the social economy re-use sector, which the Furniture Re-use Network leads, could affect global and local change if only we worked together more formally and coherently. With a little action by all, we can help solve waste, environmental and welfare problems. It is a circular issue. Unwanted but reusable `waste’ can provide enormous social benefit. It is common-sense, reuse matters. So why aren’t we doing it?
The FRN is. We just need other bodies and industries to be part of our circular re-use economy.
The FRN leads and represents over 300 furniture and electrical re-use charities across the UK. Our aim and that of our members is to alleviate material poverty, through the provision of low-cost or free household goods. Typical recipients would include children leaving care, women and families fleeing domestic violence, ex-offenders, ex-service personnel, people with mental and physical disabilities and the homeless; basically anyone who has the opportunity to move into a secure and stable home – often for the first time – and has nothing.
However, as a result of the economic downturn in the last 5 years, and recent welfare reforms, the sector is experiencing an increase in demand – some of our members have experienced a 100% increase in demand compared to last year - for product and for support services from cash-strapped families.
On average each year, our sector helps over 950,000 households across the whole of the UK.
In 2012/13 the FRN network reused 2.7millions items of furniture and electrical equipment. This equates to 110,000 tonnes of waste prevented and saves low income families across the UK in the order of around £350 million.
Based on the current demand, we could double this amount.
Much policy work, consultancy research and public money is being spent on looking at ways to stimulate demand for pre-used, second-hand furniture and household goods but we say look at current demand first. It exists and demand is increasing as austerity measures start biting and the cost of living increases.
The major issue for our sector is getting access to the unwanted and wasted, but reusable household goods.
Waste management tenders and contracts issued by local authorities invariably fail to incorporate specific re-use targets and social outcomes which would benefit the local community. Therefore, there is no contractual imperative upon the waste management industry to consider the social value and positive welfare and environmental impacts associated with re-using bulky waste. FRN’s work with some of the UK’s leading furniture and electrical retailers has illustrated that commercial partners recognise both the social and environmental value of working with our sector as well as the value to their customers of product takeback; they have embraced our sector’s work wholeheartedly.
Our sector has historically had to bang on local authority and waste management doors to get access to tiny crumbs, or should I say splinters of unwanted furniture and appliances; and because we’re having problems meeting the demand from clients and customers, the sector is having to buy new goods.
This makes no sense when Local Authority Social Service departments are paying over the odds for new goods when perfectly good (and often better) products are being wasted and sent to landfill by the waste departments and contractors. We want to see a joined-up approach to local and national government policies which will bring savings for everyone involved.
The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 is intended to integrate social value into public sector contracts. I think we’re a long way from seeing full incorporation of social value but it’s clear that working with our sector makes moral and business sense and would be a very quick win for all concerned.
The charity sector is often criticised for a lack of professionalism and inability to step up to the contractual plate.
We disagree. We have over 60 members who are Approved Re-use Centres that have been audited and certified to ISO-based quality management standards and robust product specific standards, and a number of these ARCs have secured fully tendered local authority bulky waste contracts as well as work under our national commercial contracts; plus 11 have gone on to achieve full ISO externally verified certification.
FRN leads and guides a professional network of reuse practitioners. And that’s just it. They are practitioners, not consultants who are scoping and number-crunching and talking about possible future policy. We’re actually getting on with saving the environment, reducing landfill and reducing public welfare bills.
Our doors are open. I think it’s time that waste managers – both in the private and public sectors - came to us to see what enormous value our sector can bring to your local communities, your budgets and your future waste services.
(Article originally published as opinion piece in December 2013 edition of the CIWM Journal)