Save our sofas: How to prevent 800,000 tonnes of good furniture from ending up in land-fill - RSA

Save our sofas: How to prevent 800,000 tonnes of good furniture from ending up in land-fill

Press release

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

RSA design researchers discovered that each year, reuse and recycling companies are forced to throw away thousands of tonnes of sofas to land-fill sites rather than find them a new home as regulation fire labels have been cut off by the previous owner (as they’re often deemed annoying or unsightly).

Published today by the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, the report Rearranging the Furniture, said 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 report said 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 and concluded that more than half of this could be reused – helping to reduce poverty by helping households in need access furniture, white goods and other household items.

Whilst the UK now recycles 42% of the 200 million tonnes of waste it generates each year, the emphasis on recycling neglects to focus adequately on the potential for increased resource efficiency through reusing old products, the report said.

According to figures released by WRAP, approximately 42% of bulky waste is furniture, with the rest mostly comprised of textile (19% including mattresses) and electrical or electronic (19%) waste.Thirty two per cent of bulky waste is re-usable in its current state, and this figure rises to 51% if we take into account items requiring slight repair.

Today’s report called 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 warned 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.

The report recommended 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 re-use 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 RSA found that for local authorities, and charities and businesses looking to increase re-use, 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 re-use or recycling facility. Residents without a car have to pay to have their bulky items collected, but costs can reach £30-£60 per item, and in poorer areas particularly this can lead to fly tipping. The RSA learnt that people will sometimes chop up their furniture in order to fit it in to their car meaning that any re-use value is instantly lost.

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

Commenting on the report, Head of Programme, The Great Recovery, Lucy Chamberlin said:

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.”

David Palmer Jones, chief executive officer of the Recycling and Recovery UK division, SUEZ said: 

Despite sitting above recycling in the waste hierarchy, reuse does not get nearly the same attention as recycling does.  The opportunities to make more of the products we discard are huge - but it needs a concerted and coordinated push from product designers, policymakers and waste management service providers.  Our work with The Great Recovery team at the RSA shows that relatively minor changes in the way in which we design and handle our household products can make the difference between consigning a discarded item for disposal, or retrieving it and giving it a second life.”

Mike Goodman, Surrey County Council's Cabinet Member for Environment and Planning, said:

Reusing unwanted furniture not only benefits the environment but also helps people save money on furnishing their homes and we're committed to encouraging as much of it as possible. We were pleased to be part of this innovative project, which highlights new ways of helping keep bulky waste out of landfill.

Craig Anderson, Chief Executive of the Furniture Re-use Network said:

We’ve all seen, heard or read about those few really good and impactful re-use activities at waste sites but I often wonder what’s stopping all local authorities working on re-use. Local Authorities who hold the keys to the gates to grant access to reusable furniture, are guided and restrained by recycling markets and targets, when we need them involved the re-use chain.

One question that has been put to me recently is whether local authorities need to be involved in re-use and waste prevention at all. So when asked if waste prevention could be the sole responsibility of civil society and communities – I’d say possibly but not for free - we cannot subsidise reforms in the waste sector as well as welfare cuts. We need to explore the benefits of reuse and its savings to the public purse – and give guidance, as we have here with the Rearranging the Furniture report, to create the initiative.

Adrian Collins, Project Manager, Kingston Community Furniture said:

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.”

The Great Recovery

The Great Recovery is a project run by the RSA and supported by Innovate UK. It looks at the challenges of waste and the opportunities of a circular economy through the lens of design. We question the systems of ‘take, make, waste’ manufacturing and provide practical, design-led solutions through our programme of events, resources and publications. Our aim is to pursue a more circular economy, and we explore challenges, investigate innovation gaps and incubate new partnerships in pursuit of this goal.

The Great Recovery’s “Four Design Models” are a guide to redesigning products and services for a more circular economy including:

  • Design for longevity: Products should be designed for long life and fixability – easy to take apart for upgrade or repair and are well crafted and reliable.
  • Design for lease or service: Leasing should become a credible alternative to ownership allowing for higher specifications of design and materials that increase life and durability.
  • Design for re-use in manufacture: These business models and systems support the return of old products to manufacturers so that they can upgrade or replace components, fix and resell them.
  • Design for material recovery: Products can be reprocessed – recycled – into new materials. These procedures can involve the intense recovery methods that extract the most value currently available.

What is a circular economy?

A model of a circular economy presents an alternative to this linear system of accelerating waste production. It aims to conserve natural resources by substituting products with services and designing things to be used again and again before the materials are recovered. Products are designed with longevity in mind and are intended to be repaired or remanufactured again and again in order to prolong their life in use. Finally, materials are recovered and recycled back into new resources, reflecting the cycling of elements in natural systems, in which the waste from one process is the food for another.

Notes to editors

  1.  For more information contact RSA Head of Media Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970 or [email protected]

  2.  For SUEZ please contact James Rossiter j.rossiter@morganrossiter  T. 0203 195 3240 / 07985 117887 or  Ben Johnson, PR & Media Manager, 01628 513288, [email protected]

  3. Please see for more information about The RSA Great Recovery project, our events and resources.

  4. About SUEZ: We are at the dawn of the resource revolution. In a world facing rapid demographic growth, urbanisation and a shortage of natural resources, securing, optimising and renewing resources is essential to our future.

  5. SUEZ (Paris: SEV, Brussels: SEVB) supplies drinking water to 92 million people, delivers wastewater treatment services to 65 million, collects waste produced by almost 50 million, recovers 14 million tons of waste each year and produces 5,138 GWh of local and renewable energy. With 80,990 employees, SUEZ, which is present on all five continents, is a key player in the circular economy and the sustainable management of resources. SUEZ generated total revenues of €14.3 billion in 2014.

  6. Great Recovery dates to note:

16th September: Print launch of report and presentation by RSA Director of Circular Economy, Sophie Thomas, at RWM resource efficiency and waste management show, Birmingham NEC

Until 18th September: Survivor Sofa displayed on ground floor of RSA House

25th September: London Design Festival re-upholstery workshop and design residency Q&A panel at Fab Lab London

October onwards: 30-min ‘Save our Sofas’ feature film about the residency project to be broadcast regularly on the Community Channel

October – December: Survivor Sofa display at Camira showrooms, Clerkenwell

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