Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: How do England’s Councils Measure up?

At Gumtree, we're all about helping the planet out with sustainable choices. Whether it's finding a good home for freebie furniture or getting someone a great deal on a second-hand laptop, we love to see the circular economy in action. That's why we care so much about the 'Waste Hierarchy' – it's a useful tool that ranks the options for waste management based on what's best for the environment. As public bodies that handle unwanted items, England's councils should apply Defra's Waste Hierarchy to the goods they collect from residents. But do they? We sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all 333 of England's councils to find out exactly how they deal with household items.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle How do England's Councils Measure up

What is the Waste Hierarchy, anyway?

The Waste Hierarchy gives top priority to the prevention, reuse and recycling of waste as the most environmentally friendly options for household goods. Disposal, which includes landfill and incineration, is at the bottom of the hierarchy, as it has the highest environmental impact. Of the 169 councils that responded to our FOI request, less than 15% explicitly state that they adhere to the Waste Hierarchy.

Around 10% recycle as a first option for dealing with household waste and don’t promote the reuse of goods at all. Most councils prefer to recycle items rather than focusing on reusing them, even though reusing is often a better option – items can be quickly given a new lease of life with minimal processing and often less transportation. The data that we received from councils showed that around 28,000 tonnes of waste was sent to landfills between 2019 and 2021 – that’s the equivalent of about seven double-decker buses for each council area.

What’s the cost for us and the planet

What’s the cost for us and the planet?

An average of 87 tonnes of waste was sent to landfills per council area in the last two years, but much of this waste could have been recycled or reused using platforms like Gumtree. Throwing household items away and buying replacements means releasing lots more carbon into the atmosphere when compared to reusing second-hand goods. For example, a new fridge produces the same amount of carbon as having over 150 showers, while a table produces the equivalent carbon to travel over 300 km by car.

Our calculations show that residents spent about £105 million on bulk waste collection in that time for items that could have gone to a new home for free – for example, by being listed on Gumtree. More than 9 million items were collected by councils across England but most don’t record what happens to items once they’ve been collected. That means it’s hard to know the true scale of the problem.

councils that get a A+

Councils that get an A+ for effort

Not all councils are ignoring the potential of reuse, however. Some of them are trying really hard to curb the problem of household waste by encouraging residents to make use of other people’s unwanted items:

  • About 80% of London councils promote reuse as a first-line way to deal with unwanted household items. Plus, the majority of London councils don’t send any items to the landfill
  • Bradford City Council has a ‘new to me’ shop that enables members of the public to take home items for a £1 donation to the Lord Mayor’s Appeal
  • Leicester City Council has partnered with The Furniture Bank to offer a reuse store at one of its recycling centres
  • Hampshire City Council empowers residents to repair items through partnerships with local reuse charities and the council’s Waste Prevention Team provides local charities with training and repair equipment. This council also provides details of local reuse and repair locations while promoting places for residents to sell unwanted furniture and goods.
So, how can I help reduce waste

So, how can I help?

Listing items on a platform like Gumtree is a fantastic option to help them stay out of landfills. If they’re not worth much money but there’s life left in them yet, you could list household goods in our freebies section, which is always buzzing with items like electricals and furniture that are ready for new homes. It’s a great way for local communities to work together to help energise the circular economy and promote the use of second-hand items – who knows who’s day you’ll make (or who will make yours) when you choose to reuse.