Does the UK have a problem with old sofas?

By Andrew Bomford
BBC Radio 4's PM programme

image copyrightiStock

Each year thousands of tonnes of perfectly good sofas are thrown away - and can't be given to families who want them. Why not?

In a large warehouse, the chocolate brown sofa sits disconsolately, looking sad and rejected, its scatter cushions scattered.

It's been sent to John Lewis's Surrey depot by its previous owners for disposal, having been replaced by a nice new model.

"It's in absolutely perfect condition," says a hopeful Toby Bintcliffe, from the charity Kingston Community Furniture, which offers cheap household goods to people on low incomes, as he lifts the cushions and rummages about in the lining. "But the big question is - does it have a fire safety label?"

Fire safety labels are the bane of his life. Ever since 1988, and the introduction of the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations, all sofas sold in the UK must be treated with fire-retardant chemicals and display a label to prove it. No label means no good.

image captionToby Bintcliffe (left) and Declan Smyth sit on the discarded brown sofa

"It's the moment of truth," adds Bintcliffe. "I think we might have one," he says, homing in on a printed label under the seat cushions, but then his voice drops in disappointment. "No - just cleaning instructions."

This is a sadly familiar story. The charity calculates that more than 50% of the sofas they could send to a new home instead have to be scrapped simply because they don't have the correct labels.

"And that's where the fire label would have been," he says, pointing at its shredded remains. It appears to have been deliberately removed. "So that's a perfectly good, three-seater sofa, in immaculate condition, that we can't use, because the fire label's been torn off."

image captionThe bane of Toby's life

According to the market intelligence agency Mintel, sofas are by far the UK's most purchased item of furniture. Some 28% of Britons have bought one in the last three years, meaning on average they are replaced every 11 years or so.

Last year the UK spent £3.6bn on sofas and other upholstered furniture - a rise of 14% since 2010, according to Mintel. A buoyant housing market encourages higher sales, which are forecast to grow by another 25% in the next five years.

But some 1.6 million tonnes of so-called bulky waste is thrown out each year in the UK, and 42% of it is furniture. According to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), just over half of this waste could be re-used - but currently only 17% of sofas are re-used, meaning a lot of pointless trips to the tip.

Apart from being wasteful, this means extra taxes to pay for disposal, and it costs the environment too. It is estimated that re-using a tonne of sofas would save 1.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions, according to the anti-waste task force Wrap UK.

And rather than being re-used, old sofas are very likely to end up in landfill, says the RSA in a recent report called Rearranging the Furniture.

image copyrightiStock
image captionMany perfectly usable sofas are sent to landfill sites

"Most manufacturers are designing sofas for looks, for a quick sale, for cheapness, to sell as many as they can as fast as they can. It's a kind of stack 'em high and sell 'em cheap model, and that's what our economic model encourages," says Lucy Chamberlin from the RSA.

"We want manufacturers to re-think not just the way they make things, but also the way we buy things and consume things."

It's a sentiment that's echoed at Kingston Community Furniture. When the charity is not being inundated with these un-useable old sofas, its staff strip them down and sell the wood and metal for recycling.

Find out more

Listen to this story on PM on Radio 4 at 17:00 GMT on 11 December or listen again on the iPlayer

The film Survivor Sofa Story will be available on the iPlayer on 15 December

The cushions and filling go to landfill. When Bintcliffe and his colleagues are too busy to break them apart - which is much of the time - the whole sofa ends up at a landfill site, even if it's in good condition. Legally it cannot even be given away.

"We find ourselves in this situation on a daily basis," Bintcliffe tells me, as we relax on the (extremely comfortable) sofa in the warehouse yard. "It's a real shame."

It raises a number of questions. Why do fire safety labels get torn off? Why throw out a sofa which seems to be only a couple of years old? Why is someone who needs a good sofa like this one being denied it, just because a flimsy label has been lost?

"People think the labels are unsightly," reckons Bintcliffe. "They're often not put in the best places - under the cushion at the front where they flap out and get in the way. And people don't know that they matter."

image captionAnother day, another sofa

Bintcliffe's boss Adrian Collins agrees there is little public understanding of the legal significance of fire safety labels. He says retailers need to do more to inform customers.

"They need to explain to them that if they are buying a new sofa, and they want something sensible to happen to it when they've finished using it, then they need to leave the fire labels on and not tear them off because they find them in some way offensive or unacceptable."

The RSA, along with Suez, a waste management company, convened a team of designers and furniture charities, with Surrey County Council and major retailers like Ikea to find ways of making the sofa industry more sustainable. They even made a film, called the Survivor Sofa Story, which will be available on iPlayer from 15 December.

One obvious solution would be to make simple changes to the design, location and fixing of fire safety labels on sofas, says the RSA. The labels often appear to be a haphazard afterthought, loosely and carelessly stuck in random positions, flapping about in a way which seems to almost invite customers to cut them off.

Rules around second-hand upholstered furniture

  • Used furniture must pass the same stringent standards as new furniture and applies to furniture intended for indoor use including beds, divans, sofa beds, children's furniture, cots, cushions, high chairs, mattresses and pillows
  • The same also applies for outdoor furniture that is suitable for indoor use (such as upholstered dining sets for use in conservatories and gardens)
  • All filling materials must meet specific ignition tests and upholstery must be cigarette resistant. Fire safety labels must be permanently in place
  • Furniture made before the 1950s are exempt, as are goods for export

It's clear that many furniture companies have not really given much consideration to encouraging a future life for their sofas once their customers have finished with them, says Ella Doran, a designer who was part of the RSA/Suez initiative.

"It is about us all thinking a little bit more, and caring a little bit more. Imagine if that thinking did infiltrate across the industry - it would make a difference. Designers have a job to do and that's to think about the materials we use, and how we can be more responsible with them."

Doran decided to put words into action.

When she heard that eight old Terence Conran sofas were being thrown out she decided to save them from the scrap heap and re-use them. This week the first of the sofas was re-upholstered by Daniel Edwards and his uncle Derek at their workshop in London, and the BBC followed the transformation process.

Doran says the intention is to display the sofas at furniture design shows to raise awareness of how old sofas can be re-born, phoenix-like and good as new, rather than be wasted. The sofas are even being covered in an upholstery fabric she designed made from recycled materials, which was manufactured especially for the project by Camira Fabrics.

media captionTimelapse video of an old sofa being refurbished

So how willing is the furniture industry to help reduce the numbers of sofas being sent to landfill?

According to James Bell, from the Furniture Industry Research Association, which represents all the major manufacturers, the industry is beginning to encourage re-use. He says the problems with fire safety labels were partly a result of old regulations which had been around unchanged since the 1980s - a time when there were fewer environmental concerns.

"Our members are certainly receptive to the idea of looking at practical solutions to simplify potential re-use," he says. "The industry will actively take on these concerns and firstly look at better ways of fixing fire safety labels to products to facilitate end of life recovery."

He agrees that retailers could also do more to encourage customers not to remove fire safety labels if they want their sofa to be re-used by somebody else in the future.

But Chamberlin is blunter. She says the level of waste is shocking, and more should be done to reduce it.

"It seems like such an easy thing to fix," she says. "And yet it is nobody's responsibility to fix it, so it is not happening."

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Listen to Andrew Bomford's story on PM on Radio 4 at 17:00 GMT on Friday or listen again on the iPlayer

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