Kickstarting Reuse in Europe

Globally, 20 to 50 million tonnes of WEEE is still disposed of each year, whilst in the UK alone two million functioning PCs are dumped into landfill.

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Decoupling waste generation from economic growth is proving a mammoth task. EU politicians and policy makers firmly believe that addressing the poor implementation of the current waste acquis will help move towards a Resource Efficient Europe. Michal Len explains how this could be achieved, and highlights some of the key obstacles and possible solutions to boosting reuse rates.


Globally, 20 to 50 million tonnes of WEEE is still disposed of each year, whilst in the UK alone two million functioning PCs are dumped into landfill. It is a similar story for used textiles and furniture. The role of reuse, however, is all too often overshadowed in the political arena by recycling, and this is clearly reflected in current legislation. Whilst recycling is indeed key to sustainable resource management, it is a risk to neglect improving the conditions for reuse activities to flourish.

Put simply, the reuse of appliances offsets the need to produce a new ones, thus saving its embodied energy, materials and chemicals. For example, the UK's Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that current reuse of T-Shirts and sofas in the UK save 450,000 tonnes and 52,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year respectively.

Regarding electronic equipment, the market penetration of many products rated A or A+ has been significant since the turn of the millennium and since 2005, the annual energy efficiency gains through better product design is decreasing in comparison to the advances made between 2000 and 2005. In addition we are in the midst of a throwaway culture with diminishing life spans of products as well as high repair costs. One study found that the average lifespan of a personal computer fell from about eight years in 1990 and estimated to be just under two years in 2010.

Thus there is an increasing proportion of energy efficient appliances which are discarded at collection points often still in functioning order. Directly recycling these appliances exacerbates any benefits from energy savings (in the use phase) as new energy and materials are required to manufacture a new products.

Socio â economic benefits of reuse

Reuse is labour intensive as it involves collection, sorting, testing, refurbishment and reselling - which is important considering the EU is experiencing an average unemployment rate of nearly 11%. Social enterprises working in the field of reuse provide opportunities for those distanced from the labour market to gain key skills such as driving commercial vehicles, carpentry, electrical engineering or marketing - even intricate trash design or eco-fashion activities.

Regarding economic benefits, it costs France â¬20,000 to support an unemployed person. By funding integration contracts in the field of textile collection, reuse and recycling, the state only pays half this and ends up saving â¬2 Euros for every Euro spent. At the same time it improves the skill set of its workers and boosts green jobs. In the UK, WRAP estimates that reuse of a selection of waste streams brings £720 million of savings to the economy.

Concerning job potential, UNIDO and Microsoft found that computer reuse creates 296 jobs for

every 10,000 tonnes of material disposed of each year. In addition, Irish enterprise Rehab Recycle, calculated that between 2010, business to business IT reuse generated 10 times more jobs than the equivalent tonne of recycled materials. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity estimate also that for every 1000 tonnes of electronics, 15 jobs can be created in recycling whilst refurbishment could offer up to 200.

Key obstacles for reuse

Despite the above-mentioned benefits, a number of key obstacles are hampering reuse rates, including access to the waste stream for accredited reuse actors, the cost of labour and product design.

Producer responsibility schemes attempt to internalise the products' end-of-life costs on the environment. The scheme for WEEE is well known, where a fee is added to the price of a new product to cover such costs. However, these schemes are managed by producer and retailer consortia, often in absence of clear regulation which dictates what happens to the goods once at the collection points. In practice, once a product finds its way to a collection point, be it retail or municipal, its most likely destination is direct recycling or recovery, irrespective of whether it is still functioning or simply needing minor repair. Around 40% of discarded large kitchen appliances that enter the waste stream are still in working order. Restricting access to reuse entities to at least check for reusability at collection points is thus a socio-economic waste and a missed environmental opportunity.

A lack of trust of reuse organisations on behalf of the producers has been highlighted as an issue. Sometimes this is understandable considering cases of illegal exports of WEEE which are branded as destined for reuse without any documentation of repair or traceability of appliances (Sham reuse). Without adequate monitoring and reporting mechanisms of all items by actors involved in preparation for reuse we face the risk of informal actors illegally exporting WEEE.

Nevertheless this cannot be an excuse to prevent preparation for reuse altogether, especially in countries where well established and professional entities can guarantee proper treatment of the appliances suitable for reuse. If accredited reuse organisations are restricted from accessing collection points, we can question the way producer responsibility schemes reflect the waste hierarchy.

Market penetration of A+ washing machines since 2004 (Attali, Bush et al 2009) Product design

In general, Europe is experiencing a flood of cheap and poorly designed products - rendering their reuse potential increasingly low (textiles are a good example). A study by RREUSE - a European umbrella for social enterprises with activities in reuse, repair and recycling - showed that between 2000 & 2005 the proportion of clothes collected that can be reused declined from 60% to 40% in Belgium and the Netherlands.

In the case of electronics, one of the main complaints from reuse actors is not being able to disassemble a product easily to repair it. In addition a lack of available spare parts increases the price of repair dramatically. Manufacturing standardised parts by third parties for different producers is thus very rare leading to an often expensive reuse and repair industry which is also hit by high labour taxes.

Lastly, the lifespan of appliances is being decreased not only by poor design but also through fashion trends and advertising affecting consumer choices, cleverly pushing them into upgrading appliances in the name of energy efficiency. There are few manufacturers producing longer lasting durable products that use these qualities to their advantage in advertising.

Some key solutions

Social enterprises active in the field of reuse and repair house some of the very best practice in repair and reuse activities. These entities have a professional approach in that they have adequate monitoring and reporting systems on collected, prepared for re-use, recovered and exported goods. They provide guarantees in terms of environmental and health and safety compliance, standardised treatment procedures, reused products' liability, reporting and traceability, insurance, technical expertise, training, license requirements and after sales service.

Such examples can be found throughout Europe including the Furniture Re-use Network in the UK which has devised the first UK Reuse Quality Management System, 'Approved Re-use Centre' (ARC) network, plus standardised WEEE reuse guidance in the FRN publication 'Fit for Reuse'. There also exist a number of quality guarantee labels, including Revisie (Flanders) and ElectroREV (Brussels and Wallonia). ENVIE, which collect and treat 25% of all WEEE in France also have dedicated systems for traceability for what goes for reuse and what for recycling.

It is precisely such organisations which are trusted and accountable for the products which they collect, repair, reuse and recycle that should be granted access to all waste collection points in order to assess the reuse potential of collected goods. Article 6(2) in the WEEE Recast is at least a step towards addressing this issue. This trust can be seen in the field of textile reuse and recycling where social enterprises have access to collected materials and are a key player in a textiles producer responsibility scheme in France, the only national scheme in the EU.

There are already cases, mainly in Western Europe, of cooperation between social reuse actors, private waste management companies and municipalities allowing such access - but this is far from the norm. A focus on formalising such activities is now gathering significant attention in Central and Eastern Europe.

Separate prepare for reuse targets

Legally binding separate preparation for reuse targets are needed in order to make separation of potentially reusable equipment and products obligatory. The recent WEEE Recast was a missed opportunity to set the first 5% prepare for reuse target on a waste stream which could have set a precedent for other waste streams. However, a separate target is not off the table as a feasibility study by the Commission and possible legislative proposal must be made by 2016.

Targets would help open up producer responsibility schemes and generate national investments into setting up networks of accredited reuse centres. They would also provide incentives for adequate handling of equipment to and at collection points, which is another major cause in diminishing reuse rates.

Improving the dataset concerning preparation for reuse is a must. Some countries have started to report 'reused' tonnages for different product groups to Eurostat but the data is fragmented.

Economic incentives

Reducing taxes like VAT on repair work may boost the viability of repair work and make repairs and refurbishment cheaper. One could shift some of these taxes onto certain natural resources.

Regarding economic incentives, differentiated visible disposal fee for the purchase of new products that are more easily repaired and disassembled could be an interesting way to incentivise the design of products that last. Indeed there exist other ways to boost reuse and recycling markets. For example through establishing cooperation between reusers, retailers and purchasers to re-introduce reused items onto the market via shops or through special provisions in public procurement.

Lastly education on the benefits of waste prevention and reuse is essential. Continuation of existing education programmes such as the Waste Watchers Campaign will form a key part in moving towards a more sustainable mode of consumption.

Conclusions

It is clear that there are significant socio-economic and environmental benefits in reuse activities. Trust between producers and accredited reuse actors is essential for good cooperation. In particular the transparency of reuse operations must be improved in some areas although as explored above, there are plenty of best in practice examples where this is already occurring. Together with separate prepare for reuse targets and access for trusted accredited reuse actors to collection points, producer responsibility schemes will start addressing the top of the waste treatment hierarchy.

As the Commission recently stated, "we must move away from a wasteful economy towards one based on durability and reparability of products which is likely to create job opportunities throughout the product lifecycle in terms of, maintenance, repair, upgrade, and reuse."

Michal Len is the Network Coordinator for RREUSE - a European umbrella for social enterprises.
email: michal.len@rreuse.org

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