The University of Southampton’s Ian D Williams, a member of the UK ISWA National Committee, looks at barriers to reuse and how they might be addressed.
‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is a phrase known around the world. Often adorning the posters of various campaigns or government websites, the slogan has become a well-recognised symbol for waste reduction and prevention. It is often used as a simplified version of the waste hierarchy.
The waste hierarchy dates back to 1975 when compelling criticisms of our disposal-based society were beginning to be voiced. The hierarchy prioritises waste prevention followed by reuse, recycling, and energy recovery of waste before disposal to landfill.
The ever-decreasing supply of natural resources and areas available for landfill means that the waste hierarchy has become an important framework for deciding how to handle our waste
The ever-decreasing supply of natural resources and areas available for landfill means that the waste hierarchy has become an important framework for deciding how to handle our waste. It has shaped – and is continuing to shape – governmental policies and local campaigns in deciding where to focus efforts in reducing waste and deliver circular economy thinking.
Subsequently, countries across the globe, particularly those in the European Union, have seen levels of waste going to landfill reduce whilst recycling rates have increased.
Climbing the ladder
In practice, most countries have regarded the hierarchy as a “ladder” and have sought to climb it stepwise from the bottom (landfill) to the top (waste prevention). Although there is nothing to stop countries heading straight for the top of the hierarchy, such a step change would require all parts of society to work together in an integrated fashion.
It is unsurprising that the majority of EU countries have taken a slow and systematic approach to instituting the philosophy of the waste hierarchy into their systems for waste management. Consequently, in developed countries, reuse has usually been overshadowed by recycling.
However, in recent times the EU has acknowledged the significance of reuse in terms of materials recovery by making legislative changes that support reuse, including the “right to repair”.
In less well-developed countries, reuse and repair is a way of life
In less well-developed countries, reuse and repair is a way of life. Used goods have always been regarded as valuable materials that can be repaired or have components recovered for reuse. The goods and components can be traded via intermediates, roadside stands and markets.
Whilst the methods used for repair and recovery of components for reuse would ordinarily be deemed as inappropriate in developed countries, repair and reuse contributes significantly to poverty reduction by providing an income for considerable numbers of poor and marginalized workers. The fact that it also assists greater material recovery is a bonus – “icing on the cake”.
Reuse on the rise
In developed countries, buying “second-hand” has often been regarded as an unattractive option for multiple reasons, including snobbery, and deemed as an activity for people constrained by a limited budget. However, in recent years reuse, refurbishment and repair of products has moved up the agenda for individuals and companies as part of the circular economy movement.
People are enthusiastically buying items that are “pre-loved” or “pre-owned” in order to make their money go further or to get more for their money. Auction-style or donation-based websites such as eBbay, Freecycle, Swapit, Gumtree, Preloved, Etsy, Music Magpie, Shpock and WarpIT are thriving, as are high street shops such as Cash Convertors and CeX.
The key question… is whether widespread reuse-related activities are temporarily “in fashion” or whether they are likely to endure?
With the circular economy and sustainable development gaining more attention, a large-scale change in waste (i.e. resource) management practices is needed. Reuse entails less of a behaviour change than prevention of waste and thus is a feasible option to replace recycling where appropriate. This is a particularly important approach within the circular economy as it is a method of extending the use of resources.
In this context, the key question for waste management strategists and policy-makers is whether widespread reuse-related activities are temporarily “in fashion” or whether they are likely to endure? What are, and how do we overcome, the barriers to reuse?
Barriers to reuse
Unlike recycling of material streams, and mainly due to the sheer variety of products on the market, the diversion and preparation of products for re-use is likely to remain a labour-intensive activity. Hence for the foreseeable future, unless behaviours radically change, reuse is likely to account for a relatively small proportion of the tens of millions of tonnes of household waste discarded annually in the UK.
There is more potential for scaling in industry, where products/materials are more homogenous and tend to be co-located in larger volumes; however the conservative nature of e.g. the construction sector, and increased difficulty sourcing markets for used products compared with re-processed materials, means that recycling will continue to dominate.
The practical potential of re-use is limited for other reasons – most things discarded are no longer usable in current form (e.g. food waste, empty packaging, DIY and garden waste). Social preferences and attitudes in affluent societies often prevent some of the potentially reusable items from being reused in practice (e.g. clothing, furniture, toys).
Perverse incentives can be a regulatory barrier by skewing application of the waste hierarchy, for example where recycling credits can disincentivise re-use
Initiatives such as the (voluntary) Sustainable Clothing Action Plan and the Construction Sector Deal are well intentioned but progress remains painfully slowly. There is a lack of public knowledge about product information provided by ecolabels, with ongoing concern about “greenwashing”. There is a lack of trust in product guarantees and extended warranties.
Economic barriers preclude re-use of technically reusable items – for example, low price of new goods, lack of developed markets for used goods, weak incentives for sustainable purchasing. There is a skills shortage in areas such as repair and remanufacturing. There are logistical barriers – distribution and reverse logistics systems aren’t set up to support return of used products by consumers for repair and remanufacture.
Perverse incentives can be a regulatory barrier by skewing application of the waste hierarchy, for example where recycling credits can disincentivise re-use. The long-awaited deposit-return scheme for single-use drinks containers remains long-awaited. High investment in energy recovery facilities will displace some reuse and recycling.
There is no proper, joined-up and thought-through national planning policy for wastes (resources). Long-standing approaches such as the “Producer Pays Principle” are still a work-in-progress, with ongoing push-back by producers. And so on… (insert your own favourite here…).
Reluctance to engage in reuse may also be driven by factors such as peer pressure to consume; socially desirability to have a slick and high quality “designer lifestyle” driven by a perception that this gives a higher quality of life; not wanting to spend time or energy on reuse; wanting bespoke items rather than “old rubbish” around the house; lack of reuse standards that provide consumer confidence.
Let’s face it, the barriers to reuse are huge. But are they insurmountable?
We know the problem
We know there are many benefits when we reuse – political, commercial, social, environmental and economic. We know there are many barriers to reuse. We know there is ongoing debate about when the potential benefits of purchasing a new, more energy-efficient appliance outweigh the benefits of reuse. We know critics say that reuse is simply delaying time to disposal – at some point, “We’re gonna use it up and wear it out.”
The truth is that the barriers to reuse are coming down and the impetus has never been higher. Researchers are finding new ways to implement circular economy thinking, from 3D printing of used construction materials to reuse of spent coffee grounds.
CIWM, driven on by current President Adam Read and Professional Services Director, Katie Cockcroft, are leading the development of Skills for the Future, involving all parts of the sector.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is leading the way in terms of helping industry accelerate its transition to a circular economy. The waste sector and society are both ready for change. So what’s the problem?
Political leadership, that’s the problem.
Time for action
Context is important. Despite many “visionary” speeches from Parliament’s despatch boxes outlining our green future, the current UK government’s track record on environmental issues is appalling.
Air quality keeps getting worse, with the High Court repeatedly ruling that the government’s failure to compel action from local authorities with illegal levels of air pollution in their area is unlawful.
The water quality of the UK’s rivers, streams and coastal waters has deteriorated inexcusably since 2010, with the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee’s recent damning finding that every single river in England is contaminated with a cocktail of chemicals, and private water companies feeling able to deliberately and illegally discharge massive quantities of raw sewage. Environment Agency staff are reportedly silenced from speaking out over-increasing pollution. England comfortably missed its 2020 recycling targets, blaming the Covid19 pandemic.
This is nonsense of course; Wales is part of the UK and equally affected by Covid19, but here there is a different administration that has championed environmental issues, and it continues to be world-leading on recycling.
The reality is that countries like Switzerland and Denmark have a progressive, ambitious, joined-up, evidence- and consensus-based, and partnership-driven approach to resource and environmental management, led by proactive government.
It is time for politicians to start acting on scientific evidence and to act as proper custodians of the UK’s environment and its resources.
In contrast, market-led, complacent, defunded and unpoliced “policies” driven by the so-called “political judgement” of ministers like Eric Pickles and Owen Paterson have led to regressive actions and unfathomable decisions. Pickles “went to war” with the waste sector over weekly bin collections, stated – in Parliament – that people who left their wheelie bins in the street after a collection should be “flogged,” and repeatedly rejected windfarm projects against the recommendations from planning inspectors whilst approving the construction of a gas plant in a rural area, immediately undermining the Localism Act 2011 that he had personally developed!
Climate-change sceptic, Paterson, claimed that there are advantages to global warming, cut funding for climate change adaptation by ~40%, described wind turbines as “ridiculous” and “useless” and supported the use of fracking. The government even recently opposed a bid to place legal duty on water companies to prevent harmful discharges from storm overflows until forced into an embarrassing U-turn by a backbench rebellion.
You really couldn’t make it up. The consequences, evidenced above, are disastrous.
It is time for politicians to start acting on scientific evidence and to act as proper custodians of the UK’s environment and its resources. It is time for the entitled, deceitful, boozy culture that led to #PartyGate to stop. It is time for this government to turn its own words, expressed in the resource strategy for England (2018) and the Environment Act 2021, into actual deeds on the ground. It is time for action – time to get this reuse party started.
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