The reuse revolution: how social enterprises are leading the way

The 30 March, 2023 marked the first-ever International Day of Zero Waste. It provided an opportunity to reflect on our consumption patterns. But also on how to support those who are working to reuse, repair, and recycle to prevent waste. In this, social economy enterprises have been leading the way for decades.

To reuse or to recycle: that is the question

Recycling is now second nature to many of us. Yet in many cases, reuse can be the better environmental solution. While recycling consists of breaking down waste to create raw materials to make new objects, reuse is about prolonging the use of existing items. This helps save materials, energy, money and time. Social enterprises are at the forefront. In 2021 alone, the social enterprises of the RREUSE network alone have reused around 230,000 tonnes of goods locally. It sells second-hand goods at bargain prices, saving about 100,000 of citizens’ CO2 emissions.

There are socio-economic benefits as well as environmental benefits to reuse. Recent analysis shows that re-use policies create over 200 times as many jobs as landfills and incinerators. The RREUSE network of social economy enterprises active in the circular economy estimates that its social enterprises create, on average, 70 jobs per 1,000 tonnes of materials collected for the purpose of being reused. This number varies from 20-140 jobs based on the type of materials handled (textile, electrical appliances, furniture and so on). Many of these are suitable for people far from the labour market for instance, the long-term unemployed, low-skilled migrants and people with disabilities.

The green jobs of social enterprises active in the circular economy often require manual skills to run their reuse and repair operations contributing to promoting green training opportunities in an inclusive and work-based approach. The broad range of skills includes textile identification, refurbishing furniture, repairing electrical appliances, among others, which are increasingly hard to find in today’s general take-make-dispose world. Different social enterprises are thus behind Repair Cafés like those of RepaNet in Austria, Ecorec in Greece, and Circular Communities Scotland, ensuring goods have a long life and green skills don’t go to waste.

No time to waste

Reuse shows us that circular and social solutions can coexist, and that policy makers can link social and green objectives, for instance, by introducing reuse targets within environmental legislation that explicitly mention the inclusive circular work of social enterprises. Equally, social economy enterprises should be acknowledged across policy areas such as state aid, public procurement, social and employment policies.

Targeted national and local strategies for all social economy actors are also important to improve their visibility and provide more legal certainty to ensure they do not operate under opaque and fragmented laws.

Policy interventions should also support fair competition, ensuring that actors that put people and the environment first are not driven out of the market by those opportunistically seeking to expand their shares via exaggerated or false claims.

Market reservations for social economy actors in public procurement can ensure social enterprises are not excluded from opportunities of buying social and green. Similarly, taxation and notably VAT rates, could be a tool aimed at rewarding actors working towards the general interest while discouraging activities of overproduction and mass consumption at the expense of labour rights globally and product quality and durability.

Finally, waste laws should be designed according to the waste hierarchy, which shows us the most preferred actions to take and those to be avoided at all costs.

Despite reuse sitting at its top, environmental initiatives still often fail to distinguish between reuse and recycling, rather than setting separate targets which will be essential for effective waste prevention.

The reuse revolution

Ultimately, an inclusive circular economy requires us to rethink our purchase and production patterns. It calls us to ensure everyone is aware of the waste crisis and that acting sustainably is not just an option for the wealthy. Luckily, many actors on the ground, such as circular social enterprises De Kringwinkel in Belgium, or Insieme in Italy, have been raising awareness about buying second-hand and waste prevention.

They have a receptive audience. Citizens, especially young people are increasingly opposed to a take-make-dispose approach to the planet’s resources. As the amount of waste grows over the coming decades, their efforts – as well as those of the social economy – now need to be supported by new policies to promote reuse. These include the strategies for the Social and Circular Economies by the European Union. Once again, social enterprises are leading the way. Let’s join them in the reuse revolution.

Read more on the OECD work on Social Economy and see the recent event held at the OECD on: Inclusion, Innovation and Inspiration: shaping our future with the Social Economy.

Read the OECD work on Circular Economy here.

Policer Officer at RREUSE | + posts

Simone Schirru is Policy Officer in Social and Economic Policies at RREUSE, the European network of reuse, repair, and recycling social enterprises active in the circular economy. Simone joined RREUSE following his work experience at the Directorate General of Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion of the European Commission (DG EMPL) where he specialised in employment, social inclusion, and education issues. At RREUSE, he follows policy files which include the EU Action Plan on the Social Economy, Public Procurement, VAT, and skills-related initiatives.