Overcoming austerity through franchised recycling

They say ‘where’s there’s muck, there’s brass’ and Warwickshire has done very nicely over the past few years with charity re-use shops located at all nine of the county’s Household Waste Recycling Centres. Warwickshire County Council is acknowledged as an early pioneer of charity ‘tip shops’ dating back to 2003. While the prospect of generating cash from goods ‘too good to tip’ was initially greeted with scepticism and suspicion from many in the voluntary sector, their tune soon changed as shop operators reported high profit margins from their low-cost / low-risk ventures.

Having won a Prime Minister’s Big Society Award plus another four national awards for a six-site social enterprise pilot in 2012-13, we took the bold step of ‘franchising’ eight of the nine Warwickshire recycling centre re-use shops plus the whole site operation of two of our smallest recycling centres in 2014. We were thus the first waste authority in the UK to auction the operation of these lucrative franchises. With some shop sites turning over £250,000 a year, our Invitation to Tender stated that former peppercorn rents were now regarded as insubstantial and unsustainable in the current climate of austerity – setting a benchmark of £50,000 per annum for each of the four lots.

Age UK Warwickshire won all four lots – adding the county’s eight-strong recycling centre re-use network to its established high street charity shops portfolio. With its ‘tip shops’ now turning over more than £1 million a year, the charity is generating a sustainable income stream for itself and the host authority against a tide of increasing austerity for local government. As well as pocketing more than £300,000 a year in franchise fees, the authority is also avoiding landfill and disposal costs of around £75,000 a year.

The Warwickshire re-use partnership is also generating significant Social Value:

  • Providing employment for 39 people reinforced by a task-force of 35 volunteers;
  • Salvaging affordable, quality goods for low income families;
  • Investing proceeds in non-contracted services to reduce the isolation and loneliness of older people e.g. befriending service, information and advice – Ageing Well exercise clubs, specialist day clubs and lunch clubs.

Warwickshire’s innovative ‘tip shops’ scheme has featured in case studies published by the LGAWRAPCIWMRecycling & Waste World and Sustainability West Midlands plus showcased on conference platforms by APSE and Defra/ WRAP. Meanwhile national and international honour includes:

The symbiotic relationship between a social enterprise and public recycling facilities demonstrates the circular economy in action – underpinning the triple bottom line of social, environmental and economic benefit.

David Whitehouse is Project Manager at Warwickshire County Council’s Waste Management Group