Sir David Attenborough has succeeded where many of us have failed: he’s managed to get the whole world talking about recycling.
His Blue Planet II, which showed incredible scenes of natural wonders beneath the sea, shocked policy-makers into talking tough about plastic pollution, and got them thinking more carefully about how we manage and dispose of our waste.
We in the waste sector welcome this willingness to debate with open arms. We, too, want a cleaner, healthier planet. However, we fear that recent developments will place unprecedented pressure on our waste management systems and ultimately hamper us from achieving this aim. In case it passed you by, China recently announced that it would no longer accept imports of low-grade plastic for processing from the UK. Given that we currently export more than 500,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling to China every year, we will need innovative thinking to address this impasse. Which leads me to wonder – why should we break down items that are in a perfectly usable condition – at great economic and environmental cost – when they could be used again?
For most people, ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ are one and the same. However the two are fundamentally different. Recycling is a process which breaks down used products into their raw state so that they can be made into new products. Reuse is about using something again, whether for its original purpose or to fulfil a different function.
The concept of reusing is not new. Just one example is ‘Make Do And Mend’, which encouraged people to make their clothes last longer, and which became one of the most memorable straplines of World War II. But what is new is the need to start differentiating between reuse and recycling – both for environmental and political reasons.
Reuse covers everything from buying and selling used goods and repairing items rather than discarding them, to renovating and “upcycling”. In recent years, it has become associated with buying items from vintage outlets and charity shops and gifting hand-me-downs to others. Fundamentally, though, reuse means challenging a “throwaway culture” and showing a little more care for the things we already own and a little more imagination about how we could use them again.
At FCC Environment, we operate reuse schemes throughout the UK. This includes a number of reuse stores, where items which have been thrown away at local household recycling centres by the public but could be used again, are salvaged. These items – which in the past have included everything from a full-size juke box to a German World War II Rangefinder – are then sold via our on-site shops which we run in partnership with local charities and local authorities.
Our approach to reuse is even helping to provide opportunities for some of the most marginalised people in our communities. For a number of years now we have been donating old bicycles rescued from our recycling centres to a number of prisons, including HMP Rochester and HMP The Mount. Here, the bikes are restored by inmates in the prisons’ purpose-built workshops as part of their studies to gain a qualification, and sold on to raise money for local charities. With statistics from the Prison Reform Trust showing that only one in four inmates have a job to go to post-prison, there is clearly a need for more quality vocational training in prisons – and we are playing our part.
So far, the case for reuse looks pretty strong. However, there is one large obstacle standing in the way of increasing the uptake of reuse: policy. Currently, reuse does not count towards the UK’s recycling targets, which have been set at 70% by 2030 by the EU. Understandably, this does not act as an incentive for businesses and local authorities to prioritise reuse.
But we do have an opportunity to change this. Waste and resources is one of a number of policy areas which the UK has ceded control of to the EU, which has historically meant that there have been limited opportunities for the UK to decide on its own waste policy framework. Brexit and the subsequent transposing of EU law into UK law, therefore, provides us with an opportunity to fundamentally redefine our approach to waste and have a discussion about where reuse, and all its associated economic, social and environmental benefits, sits within that.
Sir David was right when he said we have no time to lose. I just hope it’s an opportunity we grasp with both hands.