Nike and Adidas combined produce over a billion trainers every year while, according to SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency), £2.5million is spent each year by local authorities to clear up fly-tipping in Scotland. Greenpeace estimates a truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute.
These seemingly random set of facts have something in common. They expose the startling amount of stuff in society and suggest people don’t know what to do with it all, to the detriment of the environment.
Closer to home, Aberdeenshire council calculated that over 83,000 tonnes of what is described as “mountains of rubbish made from clothing, leather footballs, newspapers, children’s toys, nappies and household items” went to landfill at their Stoneyhill and Buchan sites in 2016. These figures have remained roughly consistent.
At the beginning of 2020 I went to Tayside Reusers, one of the North East’s largest reuse centres, to see what is being done to deal with waste in a responsible manner, and ultimately reduce it.
Reuse, recycle and upcycle
The terms sound similar but they are vastly different processes that often get mixed up in a smorgasboard of conflicting aims.
To reuse – is repairing something to the point it can be used again.
To recycle – is to pull apart the item that is being thrown out and use its components to make or do other things.
To upcycle – is to redesign something to make it better (a more costly and sometimes less environmentally compatible way of reusing items as new components may need to be added).
“We used to be a not-for-profit organisation but that is not what we are about. Our ethos is trying to avoid reliance on grants.”Shiona Baird, chair and trustee, Tayside Reusers
Tayside Reusers focuses on reuse. If you have an old sofa, a cooker, a washing machine you want to replace, TVs, bicycles, clothes, CDS, nearly anything, instead of throwing these items out to landfill, Tayside Reusers will take them in (they offer a collection service), restore the item to an industry accredited working standard, and sell it at hugely discounted prices.
Dr Matthew Davis, one of the company trustees and head of social media explains; “if an item is brought in and we can clean it, repair it or do anything we need to sell it, we will. And if we can’t reuse it, we recycle it.”
Tayside Reusers began in 1992 as a recycling charity that sorted paper and cans. Now it’s a functioning retail company that aims to make annual profits. Chair and trustee Shiona Baird says it’s important to change the ethos from relying on handouts to becoming self-sufficient so it can put money back into the operation.
“We used to be a not-for-profit organisation but that is not what we are about. Our ethos is trying to avoid reliance on grants. We want to make a profit so we can reinvest back into the business.”
Thirty years of evolution
In almost thirty years Tayside Reusers has evolved so that now it can offer:
• Paid employment
• Training and apprenticeships
• Support for the local community
Shiona tells me when people come in for training the first place they are assigned is the electric department, learning skills like PAT testing, replacing plugs and restoring whitegoods.
Matthew describes how there is ambition to expand the training by bringing in full-time teachers.
“We are particularly looking into upskilling and upcycling because we want to encourage reuse and these are the skills people will need.
“The idea is training rooms where you bring people in and teach them; this is how you upcycle a chair, this is how you fix a lamp, this is how you fix a washing machine.”
Dr Matthew Davis
Matthew, born in the state Iowa, is a young man with a doctorate in Scottish Architectural History who applied to work for Tayside Reusers through a job advertised on LinkedIn.
Although Mathew had to go through a formal recruitment process to work with Tayside, none of the trustee roles are paid. Shiona told me when Matthew first introduced himself to Tayside Reusers; “we couldn’t let him go because of his enthusiasm”.
Matthew has eight aunts and uncles and, with his childhood spent on a farm in mid-state America, he was given rather unusual ways to past the time as a kid.
“At ten years old I was given a welder and a bunch of metal and told make something. My mum was the eighth of nine children and she never got anything new, which is important because when I grew-up she taught me I don’t get anything new either. Living on farms everything gets reused. It’s a way of life.”
Ties to the community and a range of services to help those in need
Tayside Reusers tries to spread the idea of the ‘third and fourth use’ way of life policy in a number of different ways including making presentations at schools and encouraging classrooms to come visit the site.
It has links with the Dundee University environmental officer to let students know Tayside Reusers can provide cheap furniture to furnish accommodation.
TR often gets visits from students of the renowned Dundee Art College looking for items and inspiration to create their coursework, and it also helps integrate convicted criminals back into society by offering employment opportunities for inmates at Castle Huntley and Edinburgh Prison.
Shiona explains, “we work with Castle Huntley prison and get inmates on day release who come and work on a number of jobs. It helps them reintegrate and makes them feel normal.”
Matthew adds; “we wouldn’t turn anyone away.”
Help from across the world
One of the people involved with Tayside who stood out amongst the mass of items waiting to be restored and resold was Eva Aguilar. A former science journalist of fifteen years who originates from Panama, Eva was one of the sales assistants inside the emporium.
“You never get bored in the emporium,” she tells me as she shows me around, and I can clearly see why.
Easily the size of a football pitch, the emporium is stocked with everything needed to equip a home (furniture, electrical goods, clothes, CDs, DVDS and books).
When Eva first joined TR she helped run the company’s social media account on a voluntary basis before being offered a permanent position as a sales assistant. She explained that it was challenging getting back into work after being out the media market so long having raised a child.
“It was difficult to get a job when you have been out the market for five years, so I was looking to get a placement here at Tayside Reusers.”
Her bubbly character and strong Spanish accent filled the vacuous space as she walked me round the warehouse. Eva clearly has pride in what she does and a passion for the cause of reuse, even though she believes it might be a losing battle.
“We try to promote reuse with our customers. And while we’re never going to be able to reverse the damage we have done to the planet, we are just trying to do our bit for the environment.”
All for nothing?
The idea damage cannot be reversed is not entirely correct and while levels of waste going to landfill remains steady, studies show that if we reverse our ways, there is hope on the horizon.
The Yale School of the Environment carried out a number of studies, the results of which were published in 2015, that contradicts Eva’s claim about the lasting impact of environmental damage. Nature is resilient.
Recording the state of sites damaged by adverse activity such as intense agriculture, mining, oil spills and overfishing, Yale discovered that over time, ecosystems do recover.
Reduce to zero
When I return from my tour of the emporium I talk more with the trustees about Tayside Resuers ambitious targets for the future.
It’s recently put in a mortgage application to buy the site it’s situated on and renovate the buildings into an “eco-centre” that would produce no emissions. Matthew also tells me about the idea to “reduce to zero”.
“If we know what is coming in we can plan for that and design our processes so that there won’t be any waste that comes out of our part of the system. Reduce to zero means it will all get reused.”
It’s a big target to meet, but for ambition to succeed it has to be equal to the challenge it faces.
This challenge; the environment and and the cataclysmic influence man can bestow on it, can be daunting when you look at the big picture. However Matthew takes a different approach in how to view the problem.
“I think of the whole environment crisis like a big issue and I don’t have the resources to fix a big issue. But with Tayside, this is something I can do, and I like doing, to help out. I like reusing”
Step by step we can still turn a corner for the sake of the environment, and from the signs at Tayside Reusers, we’re well on our way.