Webinar highlights: Reuse and repair

Blog by Emily Nurse, Sustainability and Social Value Intern at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

With growing demand for a shift to a more circular economy, reuse and repair programmes have rapidly come to the fore, looking to become the next priority within the waste prevention agenda. Following the launch of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK’s guide, Putting reuse at the heart of your household waste and recycling centre, we hosted a webinar, chaired by External Affairs Director, Dr Adam Read. Adam was joined by a panel of experts who shared their insights about making reuse through HWRCs more effective. If you missed the session, you can watch the recording here.

Reuse and repair in Wales

Dr Andy Rees, Head of Waste Strategy, Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy Division within Welsh Government presented first, speaking about reuse in Wales and the HWRC agenda.

Transitioning up the waste hierarchy

In 2021, the Welsh Government published a new circular economy strategy: ‘Beyond Recycling’, to focus on greater environmental and economic outcomes when handling waste. A key target within this strategy was to ‘support 80 reuse and repair hubs in local town centres’. This presents a strong case for helping the planet in promoting zero-waste shopping – simultaneously creating social value while enabling town centre regeneration post covid.

During the covid period, the Welsh Government supported approximately 200 projects with their ‘circular economy fund’, and specifically funded 30 repair and reuse hubs, with most being led by local authorities and community groups. In 2023, there will be a targeted grant to accelerate reuse and repair projects across Wales. This will primarily be through local authorities, but they will also be encouraging partnerships with the public sector, private sector, and third sector.

Andy informed the audience that 15 out of 22 local authorities in Wales have at least one reuse shop at their HWRCs, setting the standard high for the rest of the UK to follow.

Surrey’s success with reuse

The second panellist was Richard Parkinson, Manager of the Resource and Circular Economy Group at Surrey County Council, one of SUEZ’s major public sector clients. Richard explained their first reuse shop opened at a HWRC in 2015. Yet, their success since then has been significant, grossing £770,000 the year before the pandemic. Surrey has 15 HWRCs and now has five reuse shops, with the stock being diverted for reuse from all 15 sites. Ten percent of the profit made from the shops in Surrey is donated direct to local charity, with £50,000 having been raised to date. Crucially, Richard highlighted that going to the HWRC isn’t just about ‘dropping off rubbish anymore’, as the examples he spoke about showcase.

Paint reuse

In September 2021, a paint reuse shop opened at the Guilford HWRC. Stock consists of water-based paint donated by the public which can be taken free of charge by residents, although a voluntary donation can be made to Macmillan Cancer Support. Paint that would have previously gone to waste now creates £1700 for charity, with a total of 6000 litres of paint being redistributed this way in the last year.

Reuse of mobility aids

Mobility aids have consistently turned up at HWRCs for years, but have never successfully been incorporated into the reuse programme, as buying new aids was quick, cheap, and easy for hospitals in the county. However, due to a recent supply shortage, Surrey HWRCs were able to implement a scheme in 2020 where these aids are set aside and collected by an adult social care provider, to get the mobility aids back into circulation. SUEZ now also regularly supply the NHS SW London Elective Orthopaedic Centre at Epsom, and St Helier Hospital with these aids, saving them thousands of pounds in the process.

Bicycle refurbishment

In 2018, SUEZ partnered with HMP Ford to refurbish bikes collected at HWRCs and upskill some of the inmates. The fully refurbed bikes were then sold in the reuse shops, generating £15,000 revenue in 2019, with £3,600 returned to HMP Ford. This scheme enabled the prisoners to learn mechanical skills specific to repairing the bikes and has become part of SUEZ’s wider released on temporary license (ROTL) scheme operating across a number of our sites.

A SUEZ approach to reuse and repair

The final panellist was SUEZ’s own, Sustainability and Social Value Lead, Sarah Ottaway. SUEZ has had a long-standing relationship with reuse stretching back for over a decade, predominantly at a HWRC level, and can proudly boast 30 reuse shops across England and Scotland.

In 2021, SUEZ diverted a staggering 400,000 items back into reuse at a local level and created 30 jobs. Sarah highlighted the importance of creating partnerships, for example with Social Enterprise ‘Refurnish’ in Doncaster, as the reuse process is all about utilising skills and creating outcomes which extend far beyond SUEZ. These valuable connections enable wider social benefits from reuse to be extracted.

Crucially, Sarah acknowledged that HWRCs are the final opportunity for an item to retain its value. For example, the average price of a wooden chair between 2018-2021 in a reuse shop was £6.83. If it ends up going into the wood bin, it will either cost the company 7p to dispose of it, or they will make 1p, depending on the value of the wood, where it goes, and how it is used post collection. That is a huge difference in value, and once the chair is disposed of the value is lost.

The higher we push these items up the waste hierarchy the more benefits are generated, with reuse creating carbon, social, and economic benefits. Reuse and repair create, on average, eight times the number of jobs per 10,000 tonnes of material in comparison to recycling. Yet, Sarah informed the audience that it isn’t just about job creation, it’s also about supporting those who need items the most, at a lower and more affordable cost.

Finally, Sarah outlined the three main challenges surrounding reuse and repair, namely:

  • Not a universal service
  • Limited resource and time to invest
  • Policy focus on recycling

Audience and poll questions

As Adam had promised at the outset, this webinar was packed full of provoking and insightful questions from the audience for the expert panel. Here I summarise a few of these discussions.

The audience proposed that a lack of national policy currently stood as the greatest barrier to developing reuse right now (39% of voters), followed by concerns over risk and liabilities (22% of voters). Sarah concurred with the audience, highlighting that that reuse and repair is not being given an appropriate legislative framework or incentives to drive it forward. However, she suggested that policy feeds into all of the answers – policy drives local decision making; it enables reuse to become more financially viable, particularly with regard to EPR (extended producer responsibility) for more bulky items.

It is clear from the audience’s response – a staggering 83% – that there is confidence and a strong belief that collaboration between local authorities and the private sector with the third sector is viable and does work. The panellists strongly agreed with the audience, arguing that all ways of donating items for reuse complement one another. Some members of the public may prefer to take items to a charity shop, and some may be unsure as to whether their items will be accepted at a charity shop, so head to the HWRC instead. Some people do not go into shopping centres and charity shops are not generally seen outside of town centres, so the HWRC provides an alternative option for reuse and may be more accessible for some groups or communities.

Andy noted that whilst we must ensure we don’t displace and disadvantage charities, the items that are being targeted at HWRCs are things that are about to be thrown away. Sarah also added that the public still have several other options for ‘getting rid’ of these items, like dropping things off at a charity shop, or through other forms of donation.

Over half of the audience (56%) believed that creating a network of repairers, shops and organisations is ‘the next step’ in the much-needed development of HWRC based reuse shops. Andy highlighted how Wales is already beginning to try and achieve this through their 80 repair shops. Richard prompted the audience to ‘take a risk!’ reminding everyone that the reuse journey in Surrey has been full of lessons learnt along the way, but their success stands as a testament to thinking big, being ambitious, and simply giving things a go.

The panellists drew the webinar to a close by providing some advice for local authorities who may be thinking about how to engage with reuse. The take-away messages were to go and see where reuse is working successfully and learn from others. They also advised to talk to staff on site – as they will have a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Discussions around reuse and repair are set to continue well into 2023 with two future webinars planned as part of this series. If you’d like to watch or listen to the full panel debate then check out the recording here.

I for one will be taking a closer look at my local HWRC when I visit over Christmas, to see what reuse is happening and what the opportunities might be for expansion, and I hope you will too.