The climate emergency is the biggest challenge we collectively face and mitigating it will require all of us to make changes to the way we live and do business.

Social enterprises are stepping up to the challenge of climate change with many making changes to their business models to help mitigate the impact of climate change. Some social enterprises are working to address both environmental and social issues simultaneously. A brilliant example of such a business is Community Wood Recycling – a UK-wide network of social enterprises collecting and reusing waste wood whilst also creating jobs and training opportunities for people marginalised in the labour market.

The business is based on a model created by Richard Mehmed in 1998. When building a playhouse for his daughter he spotted some wooden sheets piled up outside a local factory in Brighton. After asking if he could take a couple, he was shocked to find that the pile was just a fraction of the excess wooden packaging the factory had which was waiting to be incinerated or headed to landfill where it would have gone on to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the earth.[1]

This incident inspired Richard to come up with a plan to recycle commercial waste timber. The Brighton and Hove Wood Recycling Project was born.

Beyond the environmental issues Richard also recognised the opportunity to use his growing recycling project to support vulnerable people in the local community, and the business began to target local people who wanted to learn new skills and change their lives. This included people who were homeless, ex-offenders people recovering from substance abuse and those with learning difficulties or mental health issues. Soon the business began to flourish as its profile grew amongst local companies.

National attention and media coverage allowed Richard to secure funding to franchise the model and the National Community Wood Recycling Project (NCWRP) was formed in 2003. The National Builders Collection Scheme was established seven years later to market the recycling service nationally to building companies.  Revenue from this goes to member enterprises, now 30 in number, and commission allows the NCWRP to operate as a fully self-funded social enterprise. Local members and the NCWRP together have adopted the trading name Community Wood Recycling. Core to the operations of the network has remained its combination of social and environmental missions:

“When I set up Brighton and Hove Wood Recycling Project in 1998 I wanted to save wood from being sent to landfill.  However, I soon realised we were having an even greater effect by also changing the lives of the people who had come to volunteer and train with us.  It was seeing the power of our model that motivated me to set up a national body to spread the idea around the country.” – Richard Mehmed

Changing lives, protecting the planet

Community Wood Recycling’s model is simple – collecting waste wood from businesses and then selling them on. Large pieces of wood are sold on as they are and shorter pieces are transformed into items such as tables and birdboxes.  Wood that cannot be reused is sold as kindling or firewood or sent for recycling by chipping.

In the financial year 2019-2020 the business rescued 22,767 tonnes of wood from the waste stream, 22% of which was reused, 30% was processed into firewood and kindling and the remaining 48% was recycled into woodchip. Over the same time period the company created 229 paid jobs and 843 training opportunities for vulnerable people helping build confidence and skills.  The disruption caused by the pandemic caused timber collections to fall in 2020, but by 2021 they had recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and the number of people employed in the network had increased to 287.

Steve’s Story

One person whose life has been changed by Community Wood Recycling is Steve, who came to member enterprise New Life Wood in February 2019 recovering from alcohol addiction.

During his time at New Life Wood Steve’s carpentry skills developed enormously and as his confidence grew, he has been able to use his experiences and insight to mentor others who are on a similar path.

Steve commented: “New Life Wood quite literally helped save my life. I was fresh out of rehab for alcohol misuse and found myself with nothing to do and nothing much to look forward to. New Life Wood has given me a renewed purpose and a reason to live by helping me learn new skills and feel good about myself again. I love being creative, and have a new found passion for carpentry which I didn’t even know I had. I now know that I am valued, and I can help make a difference to others who have experienced a similar journey to mine.”

Steve and colleague - Community Wood Recycling Social Enterprise UK stories
Steve (on the left) with a colleague at New Life Wood

Innovating to reduce paper waste

A common feature of the social enterprise sector is its ability to innovate – identifying problems and coming up with new solutions.

Every piece of waste in the UK has an audit trail, with licensed waste carriers having to fill out a waste transfer note (WTN). Using conventional paper-based systems equates to tonnes of discarded paper every year – something which sat uncomfortably with a social enterprise set up to reduce waste. Community Wood Recycling has come up with an innovative electronic WTN via an android app. The app was fully rolled out across the whole Community Wood Recycling network on 1 April 2021 and it is estimated that it will save 13,000 pieces of paper a year. 

Community Wood Recycling has shown that a social enterprise does not need to separate the social from the environmental. With the climate emergency happening alongside widening social inequalities, social enterprises like Community Wood Recycling are showing how social businesses can create jobs and opportunities where they are needed most whilst also helping to protect the planet.