A change to the way fire labels are attached to furniture could reduce sofas and chairs ending up in landfill, according to a report by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) think tank and SUEZ.
RSA design researchers found that reuse and recycling companies are forced to throw away thousands of tonnes of sofas each year as regulation fire labels have been removed – often because they’re often deemed annoying or unsightly – preventing them being given new homes.
Published today by the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, Rearranging the Furniture, says that over 80% of the environmental impact of products we use every day is built in at the concept design stage, and that furniture manufacturers should learn from reuse and recycling companies in order to improve the end-of-life implications of their designs.
Lucy Chamberlin, The Great Recovery – “One man’s waste is another’s gold, and as we saw time and again it is people’s perceptions about what is or isn’t waste that effectively determines the fate of an object”
The report says that every year in the UK we throw out around 1,600,000 tonnes of so-called “bulky waste” – large items that are too large to fit into a standard dustbin and concluded that more than half of this could be reused – helping to reduce poverty by helping households in need access furniture, white goods and other household items.
Whilst the UK now recycles 42% of the 200m tonnes of waste it generates each year, the emphasis on recycling neglects to focus adequately on the potential for increased resource efficiency through reusing old products.
Commenting on the report, head of programme, The Great Recovery, Lucy Chamberlin said: “One man’s waste is another’s gold, and as we saw time and again it is people’s perceptions about what is or isn’t waste that effectively determines the fate of an object.
“Items that are no longer wanted by one person will still hold value for others so re-selling should be made as easy as possible. By increasing rates of reuse not only can we reduce the quantity of bulky items going to landfill and incineration, we can also increase social value by boosting employment and providing affordable essentials like sofas to those on low incomes.”
According to figures released by WRAP, approximately 42% of bulky waste is furniture, with the rest mostly comprised of textile (19% including mattresses) and electrical or electronic (19%) waste. Thirty two per cent of bulky waste is re-usable in its current state, and this figure rises to 51% if we take into account items requiring slight repair.
Today’s report calls for the original manufacturers of bulky waste to take more responsibility regarding the “end of life scenario” in their designs, either by receiving the goods back once the customer has finished with them or by contributing towards the costs of repair or recycling.
David Palmer-Jones, SUEZ – “Our work with The Great Recovery team at the RSA shows that relatively minor changes in the way in which we design and handle our household products can make the difference between consigning a discarded item for disposal, or retrieving it and giving it a second life”
However, the report also warned that if the UK’s wider system of waste, recycling and reuse is not designed to take account of the actual products, materials and behaviours that flow through it, there is very little point in merely changing the design of a single product. A keyboard designed for disassembly, for example, will still end up being shredded and put into the e-waste furnace unless a logical system has been designed to divert it out of the existing infrastructure.
The report recommended that policy makers should continue to increase landfill tax incrementally and eventually introduce a future ban on landfill for bulky waste. It recommended that the land-tax should be used to fund re-use collection and waste prevention services
David Palmer-Jones, chief executive officer of the Recycling and Recovery UK division, SUEZ said: “Our work with The Great Recovery team at the RSA shows that relatively minor changes in the way in which we design and handle our household products can make the difference between consigning a discarded item for disposal, or retrieving it and giving it a second life.”
Local Authorities have an important role to play and should aim to become “resource returners” rather than “waste managers” and look to train and insure their own drivers. The RSA discovered that some councils do not currently insure their bulky waste collection drivers to enter residents’ homes, so furniture is often left outside and can be damaged by rain or vandalised.
The RSA found that for local authorities, and charities and businesses looking to increase re-use, the cost of transportation is a very real issue, and can mean that it’s still cheaper to take the furniture to landfill than to a re-use or recycling facility.
Residents without a car have to pay to have their bulky items collected, but costs can reach £30-£60 per item, and in poorer areas particularly this can lead to fly tipping. The RSA learnt that people will sometimes chop up their furniture in order to fit it in to their car meaning that any re-use value is instantly lost.
Craig Anderson, Furniture Re-use Network –”We need to explore the benefits of reuse and its savings to the public purse – and give guidance, as we have here with the Rearranging the Furniture report, to create the initiative”
The report suggested that the recycling industry consider incentives for site staff to sort and recover materials, and to prioritise re-use over recycling through bonus schemes. It also encouraged manufacturers and designers to interact with waste managers to gain insights into second and third life opportunities. Customers should also be engaged and taught to see value in their furniture, the report said.
Craig Anderson, chief executive of the Furniture Re-use Network said: “Local authorities who hold the keys to the gates to grant access to reusable furniture, are guided and restrained by recycling markets and targets, when we need them involved the re-use chain.
“One question that has been put to me recently is whether local authorities need to be involved in re-use and waste prevention at all. So when asked if waste prevention could be the sole responsibility of civil society and communities – I’d say possibly but not for free – we cannot subsidise reforms in the waste sector as well as welfare cuts.
“We need to explore the benefits of reuse and its savings to the public purse – and give guidance, as we have here with the Rearranging the Furniture report, to create the initiative.”