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How to set up a reuse system: with Mike Howroyd of Leeds University

University, Case study, Reuse program: Planning stage

Are you thinking "How do I set up a reuse system"? Or "How do I set up a reuse system for free"?

In this session we talk to Mike Howroyd from the University of Leeds about the reuse program he developed to trade surplus assets. In my opinion Mike has been leading the way in the public sector around reuse for the last 10 years. Google thinks the same- If you are in the UK and you google "Reuse and University" you will see Mike gets the top spot ahead of any other University (and Warp It!). He was the first one I had seen set up their own internal online platform.

He has been on his own reuse journey and in this article we discuss how to set up a high performing reuse system.You can download the University of Leeds Case Study at the end of this article.

MIke set up his own internal system which ran for 5 years and was very successful he then saw some additional benefits of using Warp it and migrated over to our system in late 2017.

The journey started with identifying a problem. Then building the first version of a solution and then iterating that version until there was something that was solving the original problem.  On the way he faced many barriers and this is what we talk about in the session below.

You will like this article if you are looking for an easy and cheap way to build a reuse service in your organisation. We talk about:

  • How University of Leeds saved £300K in 3 months with a surplus assets email mailbase
  • How to set your own reuse mailbase up for free
  • How to track the value (financial, waste and carbon) of reuse and make the business case. 
  • How to develop your own online platform internally
  • Collaborating with suppliers to maximise reuse
  • City wide reuse with other organisations using the Warp It service.  
   

Daniel:

 Welcome! Let’s get stuck in. What's your job role, Mike?

Mike:

 Sustainability Projects Co-ordinator.

Daniel:

 What sort of stuff do you do?

Mike:

I have lots of different responsibilities including being one of the people that's responsible for the University’s environmental management system and am responsible for the auditing program. I also work on our approach to managing waste, looking at how we can make reductions through construction projects, general office waste and bulky waste by exploring ways in which we can be innovative with our waste and maximise reuse. I am also the operational lead on the management of our biodiversity standard and associated action plans.

Daniel:

 Great!

Mike:

Oh, I also oversee the student and staff engagement through Green Impact.

Daniel:

 A wide spectrum. Is that typical for sustainability giving everything to one person to run with?

Mike:

 

I don’t have everything - not at all, but I do think it works better to have lots of different work strands.  Working on only one can become mind-numbing.  The great thing about sustainability, is that no two days are the same.

Daniel:

 Talking reuse: what problem were you facing on your campus before you developed your solution? What were the issues?

Mike:

 

The main problem really was a lack of storage. The store we had was in an old sports centre and it was used for a number of years for departments when they needed to get rid of anything that obviously wasn't broken, or could be reused. People would contact the estates department to come and take stuff. It was very important, but there was no inventory kept, or anything like that. That worked for years.

 

The downside of that, of course, was when space became a bit of a premium, it was quite hard to justify keeping the space. We had to get a bit creative because the storeroom was taken off us. At the same time, we were buying a lot of new furniture and disposing of a lot of good quality furniture. We needed to think on our feet really about what to do. That's where Leeds Reuse came from.

Daniel:

 So you had a problem with surplus furniture and where to store it, once your storage option became threatened. What did you do next?

Mike:

 

We trialed a very simple email distribution list to get our 'champions', but we called them 'environmental coordinators'. They're based all around the university and they trialed an email distribution system. We had a couple of projects where refurbishes were clearing out a building, so we just advertised this stuff on that system. We had a massive response. People were very quick to take that stuff and reuse it across the university.

 

What really made it work, really, was me putting a value to that. It's very easy to say, "We'll reuse 20 chairs." Once you say that those 20 chairs have a reuse value of about £40 each, all of sudden it makes quite a compelling case to say, "We need to do something about that." That's where it came from. I basically made an inventory of everything that we had and how we reused it and how much that saved. Then, we worked out a bit of a carbon calculation for that. We knew roughly how much carbon we'd saved by not chucking it in the skip.

Daniel:

Great, what came next?

Mike:

 

Then, I think it was working with Warp It, we worked out the skip value, and we were able to advise departments on how much they would have spent, how much they have saved. The people getting rid of the stuff were saving money because they weren't having to pay for skips, and the people taking the furniture were obviously not having to buy new furniture, so they were saving quite a lot of money as well.

Daniel:

 Great. The power of the metrics is giving you that knowledge?

Mike:

 

Oh, absolutely. That's what's made it work from the start. We needed to make it work. By actually saying, "We can save the university X amount of pounds” and making that very easy to understand and demonstrate in a way that's quite visual was very important, hence the reason we're moving over to Warp It really, because our system's quite old now.

Daniel:

 Great. Taking that back a little bit, but staying with metrics, how can others go about, in the quickest way possible, putting a value on their stock with regards to replacement costs , weight and even carbon?

Mike:

 

The value's really easy if you've got an approved supplier or a number of approved suppliers that you use. All I did was work out what their lowest range was, work out what their highest range was, and then look for a medium value.

Daniel:

 Excellent.

Mike:

 

If it's an office task chair, there'll be an high end and a low end. I wanted to go for the medium level, but we ended up going for the lowest value, so the cheapest chair was £40, that was the value I put to it.

Daniel:

 People might challenge you and say, "We haven't saved that much." You can show them "Well actually, look, we've probably saved a lot more!”

Mike:

 

The initial categories were storage, seating, desking and miscellaneous. Within them, you can then break it down into office task chair, or whatever. That just gave us a top level metric. For the desking, there's a standard cost. I think it's about £125. That is a rough value. Now, obviously, you could probably buy a cheap coffee table for less that £125 but you can't buy a corner desk for £125, it's more like 300, so actually, that balanced out.

stationery.jpg

 

It actually gave a really low figure but it allowed us to balance it out by going for the low end as well. People argued that something they'd bought was cheaper than what I'd put a value to. I could then counter-argue that by showing the figures.

Daniel:

 Going back. You say you started with an email distribution list?

Mike:

 

Yeah, it was just a simple email distribution list. It was admin heavy for me because I had to track everything and it relied on the users feeding the information back to me when they'd reused it. There was a lot of admin there, which is what built a case for creating a new site, but without that admin, I don't think we'd have got there, if you know what I mean? We needed to basically prove that it worked first.

Daniel:

 You mentioned the new site. How did that email list turn into something more automatic?

Mike:

Well, basically, in the first 3 months of the email list I think we saved about £300,000 in furniture. I just used that, created a report basically saying this is how much we’d saved over that time. That allowed us to agree the the finances centrally to pay for a new system. It was actually the IT department that approved the fund. They realized that the savings were massive and they wanted to support that.

keyboard.jpg

Daniel:

I’m sure that first they attacked your figures, but then you were able to demonstrate, "No. Look, actually, it was probably more than £300,000 we've saved."

Mike:

The financial proof wasn't difficult because people knew. The people who were putting the stuff on there knew that it was wrong to throw it away. People are not daft. More often than not, people just turn a blind eye. I think once it was on a report and it was black and white, it was quite hard to argue with that.

 

The carbon savings came later. They came when we developed the reuse site. That just allowed us that functionality. We worked out what the carbon values were on the same categories as the other items. We worked out the carbon values for those, an office task chair or a piece of desking, or whatever. The miscellaneous is quite difficult but that covered everything from toners to fridges.

Daniel:

 Was there anything you didn’t list?

Mike:

 

I've tried to keep individual office printers off there because it aligns with university policy and we're trying to discourage that. We were going the MFD route.

Daniel:

 

Great! How did the reuse site develop from that point? I'm visualizing an online marketplace of sorts. Is that what it looked like for your staff?

Mike:

Yeah. Very similar to, I suppose, the early days of Warp It. It's quite similar really in a lot of ways. It showed you the savings in real time on the homepage. All the membership was based on an approval system, so you couldn't just go on there. Once registered, that allowed people to log in with the same username and password. That also allowed all the information to be automatically pulled over from the system, so their location within the university, and things like that, so that when they advertised something, we could say in the advertisement, "Based in such and such building".

glassware.jpg

Daniel:

 Can you talk a little bit about developing software internally and that whole process? What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?

Mike:

I suppose the biggest challenges were around IT and getting the internal IT team to work with the developer to make it all function. That's just because these things naturally take time and our guys were quite busy.  Actually finding time for them to work  with the university appointed developer was the main challenge.

Daniel:

 Naturally. What sort of style were you looking to achieve?

Mike:

They were quite a heavy database-style company really. That was something we were quite keen on. The back-end metrics and getting the information out. That was probably the biggest barrier, getting the IT people to move forward really. These things are quite slow in larger organizations.

Daniel:

 You can get some good quick wins, but generally, it's a long, hard slog to change things isn't it?

Mike:

Yeah, you've got to put the hours in really. I think, to be honest, the hardest bit is just accepting that it doesn't get fixed quickly - to do the full system and embedding it into your processes.


Getting staff buy-in isn't too hard, because it's an easy way for people to say, "We've saved this much money," or whatever. Actually getting everybody to line up and do the same thing at the same time is harder.

Daniel:

 How did you promote your system and are there any tips you can give?

Mike:

To be honest, promotion-wise we haven't had to do a lot. We have an internal newsletter and all the usual internal communications. In the admin section of the site I can reach everybody.  I can get key messages across, like "Make sure you turn your computers off at night" If I wanted to. I haven't done too much of that. I try and keep that to a minimum really but it does allow, where people are doing things they shouldn't be for example, people taking stuff home. Every now and then a reminder might just go out saying, "You can't take university property home unless you have it approved, etc.”,

 

It's a good way of keeping it all in check. In terms of communication for promoting the system, it's been quite simple. We've not really had to do very much. We probably will do when we move over to Warp It because that's a change in the system that people are going to need to be prepared for. In terms of the actual system itself, it's just kind of grown organically. That's because, when we started off with the environmental coordinators, who were our eyes on ground, they just pushed it toward the people that they thought were most relevant, purchasing managers and people like that. Those people then have passed it on to other people in their area that might be relevant.


[Note: If you are interested in how procurement can stimulate reuse see our blog post here]

   

Daniel:

 Fantastic! I know that you've done some work with external agencies like Over2Hills and I know you've talked with us in Leeds. Do you want to talk a little about that and how you're linking up collaboratively?

Mike:

We spoke to Over2Hills very early on, around 2009, and they were offering their new system for taking stuff away and giving it to charity on our behalf. Basically, one of the problems that we had was, if it doesn't get reused, what can we do with it? Initially it was a case of, "Well, it's not going to reuse, now I can skip it." Hills provided us with an opportunity to improve that, so they would take it and give it another chance somewhere else and they would take responsibility and ownership for it. That meant that all the liability stuff transferred from us.

chair.jpg

 

What they also offered was the chance for any of our staff to come and take that stuff for free as well, which gave an opportunity for home use that I would have struggled to do internally.  That works well, so well in fact that we are now putting together a furniture recycling framework with the NEUPC.  Basically, if any of our contracts are clearing furniture, they have to go to an appointed company.

 

Basically, that means then that these companies will do exactly what we ask them to. At the moment, we might get a furniture supplier sent in to take the old furniture away.  They will recycle and recover the furniture, but what I’m really interested in is making sure it is considered for reuse first. By appointing people through a framework, we can specify exactly what we want them to do with it, I.E, give it to charity if it's reusable, things like that.

Daniel:

 Is this something your partners are interested in?

Mike:

 Hills are aware of that, as are the others, and they're also aware that we're looking to upgrade our system to Warp It. They've been very keen to get on that bandwagon and make sure. One of the things that we require is that the suppliers put the stuff onto the reuse website for us for 30 days after they've taken it away. If they are on the Warp It system, they can link up automatically.

Daniel:

 What's your plan for the foreseeable future, especially with collaboration at city level?

Mike:

Part of our ambition is to set up city-wide networks for reuse and to truly mobilise the circular economy in the Leeds region. We've already spoken to Leeds City Council, we're really keen to get them onboard with an internal reuse system that we can link up with and I know Warp It provides that platform. Also, I’m hoping we can bring the NHS and larger companies such as Asda in Leeds.  There are many other organizations in the city too. Then, as a secondary level to that, we've got the colleges, schools. Then, almost as a third level, we've got charities and organizations like that.

 

There's a lot of potential to create a big, city-wide network for the system. Obviously, that takes some thought as to how that rolls out to make sure it works properly. Individuals are probably not going to want to pay for the online platform, but organizations can and this might be the way to justify the system across the city.

Daniel:

 What are your top tips for anybody who's either starting afresh or wants to improve their system? What would be the best activities they can undertake to bring it to fruition?

Mike:

Record the detail. Record the numbers and make sure that you can back them up. To be honest, it's not hard to do and I think with that, it's been so powerful for me to say, "Look, we've just saved £0.5 million." People can't ignore that. Managers can't ignore that. I think when you do that, it makes it very easy to say, "Can I justify £3,000 for a reuse system for year?" It's not hard.

Daniel:

 That one activity of getting the robust metrics together almost starts off a domino effect of making it much, much easier to roll out and much, much easier to get support.

Mike:

I'd say look at the free systems first. Try and set up a simple free system if you're starting from scratch, and if you're not and you're wondering why it's not working, get your data and get your information. It involves a little bit of admin but actually, once you break it down, it's amazing how much you're saving.

Daniel:

Brilliant! Thanks a lot for your time Mike! Readers download the case study below. 

   warp it case study
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   



 

 

About the Author..

Daniel O'Connor

Daniel O'Connor

My goal is where reuse & repair is so convenient and desirable, that organisations do not throw anything away or buy anything new.. Where reusable items are redistributed for their 2nd and 3rd useful lives and when the items fail, they are diverted into repair.

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