We are conducting a research project looking at social innovation, how it scales and how it retains or grows its social impact. Here we look in more detail at the history of the community recycling sector. We’re keen to get feedback on this work as it develops. Please take a look and leave a comment.

Social Innovation: Case Study 5 – Community Recycling Enterprises  

As part of our research into how different social innovations have scaled, and how this has affected their social value and impact, we are using five social innovations as case studies. They are: development trusts, community food enterprises, community HIV health services, community energy enterprises and community recycling programmes.

We have undertaken desktop research into each of these innovations, and are now conducting semi-structured interviews with key people working in each field. We are keen to hear from other people working in our case study fields, and with people engaged in social innovation in general. To facilitate this debate, we will be sharing our summaries of each innovation based on our desktop research.

This third case study tackles the history of community recycling enterprises.

Community groups such as Avon Friends of the Earth pioneered kerbside recycling collection, the collection of a range of recyclable materials from the doorsteps of households.[1] Community kerbside recycling schemes were initially established independently of local authorities, funded by grants, income from job creation and training programmes and the sale, to processors, of the materials collected (paper, metal, glass). As legislative drivers such as the Landfill Directive (EU) forced local authorities to recycle household waste, community kerbside collection schemes increasingly bid to deliver commercial contracts directly to local authorities, or as sub contracts to private waste contractors. However, these relationships were increasingly threatened by the private sector throughout the 2000s as commercial waste management companies adopted the business model. With a few notable exceptions, very few remain in business.

Social Impact or Social Value?

However, despite the demise of community recycling enterprises, household recycling rates have continued to increase 3.5 times between 2000 and 2010 and to a new high of 43.6% in 2012.[2]  Many would argue the increase in recycling rates is the important thing, and it doesn’t really matter who is delivering the services. They might say this innovation has had huge social impact. Others, however, might argue that kerbside recycling has lost some value, in being taken over by the private sector. When recycling was undertaken by community groups and social enterprises, the sector had social value beyond recycling by providing jobs and training to unemployed people, and retaining profits within the local economy.

This case study raises an interesting question, which we will be exploring in our research. In our research we are differentiating between ‘social impact’ (what you do, example: how much household waste is recycled) and ‘social value’ (how you do what you do, example: employing NEETS in a community recycling scheme). We believe this is a new, and important distinction to make when discussing the outcomes of innovations. We’d like to hear from you on your experience of this, or any social innovation: do innovations that scale their impact lose some of their social value?

[1] Letsrecycle.com (21 August 2003) ‘Avon Friends of the Earth Goes into Receivership’ www.letsrecycle.com.

[2] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs “Statistics on Waste Managed by Local Authorities in England in 2012/13’ https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/255610/Statistics_Notice1.pdf.

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