New rules that came into effect from 1st January mean that certain items of unwanted furniture known to contain Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs, must be dealt with differently, but Sam Coggin of Coggin Sustainable Office Solutions in Lancashire says official guidance, and that available from some waste management companies, is confusing and misleading, and is calling for greater clarity.
His family business helps divert redundant office furniture away from landfill either by repairing and remanufacturing desks and chairs to resell as better than new, or by recovering components that can be used for spares and repair. Furniture that is unfit for reuse is painstakingly broken down by hand into material form, such as metal, plastic, and wood, and segregated for recycling.
But he says that conflicting and contradictory guidance over the new POPs rules means that office-based businesses, facilities management firms, office removals businesses, and office fit-out contractors are confused about what they can and can’t do with surplus or unwanted office chairs.
He’s calling on the Environment Agency to provide greater clarity and says larger waste management companies need to revisit the way they’re interpreting and communicating the new rules.
“The new rules apply to domestic seating that contains POPs. These chemicals are usually found in foams and fabrics, and are what give them their fire retardant properties,” said Sam.
“In its published guidance, the Environment Agency somewhat confusingly says that the new rules apply to domestic seating found in business settings too. It then goes on to provide examples of the sorts of seating that fall under the scope of the beefed-up regulations, listing home office chairs but not commercial seating or contract office furniture.
“It’s hard for businesses to make sense of this guidance. There’s a big difference between a £600 office chair on the one hand, that’s purpose-built for heavy commercial use, and designed for non-smoking environments that typically have sophisticated fire detection, fire extinguishers available and people trained to use them, and a £75 home office chair you can buy in Argos on the other. Do the rules apply to them both equally or not?
“From what we now understand, although they suspect they might, the Environment Agency and Defra haven’t yet conducted any research into commercial seating and so lack any real evidence about whether the foams and fabrics used do or don’t contain POPs.
“As a consequence, their position appears to be that businesses should take a precautionary approach and assume that office chairs contain POPs unless they can prove otherwise. But that’s not immediately clear in the published guidance.”
Sam says he’s also seen advice shared by a number of large national waste management companies, as well as some smaller regional players, in which they’ve parroted the Environment Agency guidance but have omitted the word ‘home’ to suggest the rules apply to all office chairs.
And he notes that some waste management companies are even insisting that whole chairs need to be incinerated where they might incorporate foams and covers that contain POPs, whereas the Environment Agency says otherwise.
“How ordinary businesses are meant to get to grips with all this is beyond me, it’s baffling,” continued Sam.
“What we need to see is clear, unambiguous guidance from the Environment Agency. If it expects businesses to take a precautionary approach while research into commercial seating is conducted, that’s fine, but it should drop the reference to home office chairs for the time being and stipulate that the new rules apply uniformly to all types of office chairs. If that’s not the case, then it should make that clear too.
“It could really do to make it clearer that office chairs in good condition can still be treated as non-waste for reuse provided they are used for their original purpose and don’t require more than minor repair to facilitate that reuse. As it stands, we know there are businesses out there that already think all office chairs have to be dealt with as waste and discarded under these new rules.
“The Environment Agency also needs to step in and let businesses know that, despite the guidance being circulated by some waste contractors, it’s acceptable for POPs materials to be removed from waste office chairs and incinerated, while the remaining components can be safely reused or recycled provided they are free from POPs contaminants. Otherwise a lot of materials of value are going to be incinerated and go up in smoke, pushing them down the established waste hierarchy and unreasonably increasing costs for businesses.”