Most Innovative Charity: London Community Recycling Network, winner

The London Community Recycling Network brings together about 200 organisations of all sizes in the capital to find fresh ways to reuse and recycle waste.

Matthew Thomson, chief executive, LCRN, displays his award
Matthew Thomson, chief executive, LCRN, displays his award

Some charitable causes have an instant, engaging appeal. For others, such as the London Community Recycling Network, inspiring people is a harder task. "Waste just isn't a sexy word," sighs Matthew Thomson, chief executive since 2006. "People tend to think of 'hairy men collecting rubbish'." So the charity talks about "sustainable resources" instead, and it seems to be working.

Creative language is the tip of the rubbish heap. The LCRN is determined to link reuse and recycling, and to redefine how organisations can work together. A team of leaders from like-minded organisations across London are "ambassadors for a new way of thinking", Thomson says. Its 12 members are in close contact with 20 of the 200-odd member organisations. "Those relationships make the network work - we're not a top-down organisation."

Thomson reels off statistics that support the mission: London produces 17 million tonnes of waste a year and throws away 1.7 million items that could be reused, such as fridges or sofas. Huge amounts of illegal waste are sent overseas each year. Already, LCRN collects as much waste as any London borough.

In one sense, innovation is the charity's birthright. It was set up in 2001 as an offshoot of the national Community Recycling Network to bring all London organisations involved in reuse or recycling together for the first time. Thomson explains: "In practice, they can work together. If a sofa can't be reused, the textiles can be stripped down and the wood used to burn as a biofuel, for example."

In its short existence, LCRN has set up two new social enterprises and a community interest company called REconomy, an independent spin-off network supporting waste management by third sector organisations.

No regional or national reuse network links such disparate groups, which range from huge appliance recycling centres with thousands of volunteers and faith-based charities delivering furniture to elderly people to a few parents running a nappy exchange.

There are networks within the network. One, in a high-rise block, gathers food waste to turn into compost for fruit and vegetables grown in window boxes. Another collects old sewing machines for parts to send to India, where they are still used. Helping this multitude of groups to collaborate and learn from each other has been the charity's greatest challenge - and the greatest innovation, Thomson says. When the network started, it encountered rivalries. "There were entrenched histories of people not working together," he says. "We refused to accept that."

Initially, tiny grassroots groups felt threatened by larger organisations. But as the network has grown, most have seen the benefits that being part of a collective can bring. Regulations, for example, are a huge hurdle, so the LCRN lobbies on its members' behalf. "We start from the view of what we can do, not what we can't," Thomson says.

A key part of this "lateral-thinking organisation", he says, is bridging environmental and anti-poverty aims: one person's rubbish is another's new sofa.

"We live in a siloed world where people belong to either a social, an environmental or an economic organisation; but everything we do is all three." Then there are the pedal-powered food composters: "A lot of people in mainstream waste management would call that completely wacky."

Looking to the future, Thomson's priority is another unsexy word: consolidation. Soaring rents for city premises mean that many projects struggle to retain a space. Some have collapsed: "There's a sense of survivalism - that simply surviving is good enough. But we want to help them become permanent fixtures and grow."

Politically, reuse is a "Cinderella subject", Thomson says, but the change of mayor has brought fresh impetus. Ken Livingstone is widely credited for his environmental policies, but Boris Johnson is "a breath of fresh air" who included reuse in his manifesto and takes the issue extremely seriously, personally chairing the new London Waste and Recycling Board. Relationships with local authorities have been fruitful, Thomson says, but the private sector has been less cooperative. This is something he hopes to tackle.

With climate change and impending recession on everyone's lips, the LCRN has caught the zeitgeist. Thomson talks about entering a new era of 'make do and mend', the first since the Second World War. "Londoners are going to have to learn new skills," he says.

Emily Ford

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