London’s recycling problem: does the solution lie in charity retail?

London has a major issue with recycling.  From 2015 to 2016, London’s average household waste recycling rate was 32 per cent. That compares rather miserably to the national average of 43 per cent. Things are also getting worse with recycling rates declining in each of the past three years.

This picture would be even worse without the contribution of London’s thriving charity shops. Charity shops are able to sell or recycle over 90 per cent of donated clothing, over 90 per cent of donated books and 85 per cent of donated electrical goods.

This diverts waste away from landfill – 330,000 of textiles last year alone – whilst improving recycling and re-use rates.  This is of direct benefit to local authorities across the country, as it saves them significant sums in Landfill Tax, around £27m a year.

So it is clear that harnessing the charity retail sector could be a really effective way of addressing this decline and ensuring that more waste is kept out of landfill and above ground. At the Charity Retail Association, we believe that when charity shops and local authorities work together in partnership the benefits are shared equally among the Council, the shop and local residents.

Charity shops and local council partnerships

A good example comes from a furniture and electrical charity shop run by one of our large members in Finchley. This shop has developed an excellent relationship with their London Borough.

When a local resident calls the Council to ask them to take away an old piece of furniture, white good, or other electrical item, the Council help desk will advise them that if they call the charity shop they will likely be able to collect the item sooner, and will do so for free whereas the Council levies a charge.

This benefits the Council as they do not incur the costs associated with the collection. It also benefits the environment as the item stays out of landfill and is reused in the local economy. It benefits the charity shop as they get more items to sell and raise more money for their cause. Finally, it also benefits the resident who can arrange a quick, free and ethical collection of their old item.

This is not the only way a Council can choose to partner up with charity shops for their mutual benefit.  We know of Councils outside of London who allow a charity to run a shop at a household recycling centre, so that they can prevent items from going in into landfill and sell them back to local people instead.

Joint ventures to reduce landfill

Hertfordshire County Council do just this. At their Harpenden site they host a Sue Ryder shop from which they take a share of the profits. Around 20 per cent of the profits are split between the council and the rest goes to Sue Ryder. They sell items which are left at the recycling centre and so this also reduces the amount going to landfill. This is a successful operation, evidenced by the fact that it is now being extended to other sites in the County.

Despite the obvious benefits of running partnerships of these kinds, very few choose to do so. Our research indicates that over 70 per cent of London Boroughs do not have any kind of partnership with charity shops.

In many cases, rather than build these constructive partnerships, Councils in London have actually put barriers in place which undermine charity shops’ ability to make a strong profit for their cause.

Improve relationships

It is our belief that, under The Controlled Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2012, the small percentage of donated items, which have originated from a domestic property and cannot be sold, should be counted as household waste, not commercial.

Therefore, if a charity shop takes these particular items to a household recycling centre themselves, they should be able to dispose of them for free. Unfortunately, many Councils frustrate this by a range of means, for example by only allowing free disposal up to a set limit, forbidding a charity from using certain vans to bring the items onto site or making the charity pay for a licence.

Again, our research, as demonstrate in the table below, indicates that London is one of the regions in the country most likely to do this.

We are of course a national organisation with campaigns running across all corners to the UK; this evidence clearly tells us that we should focus our efforts at improving the relationship between the London Boroughs and their local charity shops.

This is something we are now actively pursuing. We have recently met with several members of the London Assembly, including the Chair of the Environment Committee to raise these issues. London Councils, the umbrella body for the 32 Boroughs, have also agreed to meet with us to discuss the problem.  You can find the briefing document we have sent to them already on our dedicated Consultation Responses section of our members website.

We will keep up the fight on this issue, as so many people stand to benefit.

Matt Kelcher
Head of Public Affairs and Research
Charity Retail Association