Save our sofas

How to prevent 800,000 tonnes of good furniture from ending up in landfill

Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod

Home » Save our sofas

Published: 11 September 2015

This Article was Written by: Katie Hill - My Green Pod


A simple change to the way fire labels are stitched or stamped on to furniture could slash the numbers of sofas and chairs that end up in landfill sites across the UK, according to a report by the RSA think tank and SUEZ.

Use it or share it – how reuse could drive the shift to a circular economy

Keep the fire label!

RSA design researchers discovered that each year, reuse and recycling companies are forced to send thousands of tonnes of sofas to landfill sites because ‘annoying’ or ‘unsightly’ regulation fire labels have been cut off by the previous owner. This means they can’t be given a new home.

The report, Rearranging the Furniture, states 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.

‘The biggest disappointment I face on a daily basis is the volume of upholstered furniture disposed of simply because it lacks a fire safety label. If these were attached in a more permanent, less obtrusive manner having due regard to the furniture being displayed in prime position in any number of homes, I estimate the disposal rate could be halved.

‘Currently, the reuse sector faces a colossal amount of wasted product which could make a priceless difference to the quality of life of the less advantaged in our society.’

Adrian Collins, Project Manager, Kingston Community Furniture

The Great Recovery Project

Published by the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, the report reveals 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.

The report concludes that more than half of this could be reused – reducing poverty by helping households in need access furniture, white goods and other household items.

While the UK now recycles 42% of the 200 million tonnes of waste it generates each year, the emphasis on recycling doesn’t put enough focus on the potential for increased resource efficiency through reusing old products, the report said.

1/2 all ‘bulky waste’ reusable

According to figures released by WRAP, approximately 42% of bulky waste is furniture, with the rest mostly comprising textile (19% including mattresses) and electrical or electronic (19%) waste.

32% of bulky waste is reusable in its current state – and the figure rises to 51% if we take into account items requiring slight repair.

‘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.’

Lucy Chamberlin, Head of Programme at The Great Recovery

Who’s responsible?

The 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.

However, the report also warns 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.

Increasing landfilll tax

The report recommends 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 reuse collection and waste prevention services.

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 cost of reuse

The RSA found that for local authorities, and charities and businesses looking to increase reuse, 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 reuse or recycling facility.

Residents without a car have to pay to have their bulky items collected, but costs can reach £30-£60 per item, meaning fly tipping can seem like a more attractive option.

The RSA learnt that people will sometimes chop up their furniture in order to fit it in to their car meaning that any reuse value is instantly lost.

Incentives and value

The report suggested that the recycling industry consider incentives for site staff to sort and recover materials, and to prioritise reuse 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.

The Great Recovery is a project run by the RSA and supported by Innovate UK. Click here to find out more.

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