‘To me there’s no such thing as waste – there’s just stuff in the wrong place’ – Cat Fletcher
With World Bank research showing that we throw away at least 3.5m tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, we’re all becoming increasingly aware that to live more sustainable lives, recycling isn’t enough. Rather than buying more things to throw away or put in the recycling bin, doesn’t it make more sense just to reuse the things we have – or, more sensibly, if we can’t find a use for them – give them to other people to use? Since 2009 the free, volunteer-led service ‘Freegle’ has been helping us to do this, co-founded by Brighton based Cat Fletcher. Cat is part of our 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series and her contemporary activism and passion for reducing waste and promoting a more sustainable way of living makes her a trailblazer in our world.
With its tagline ‘Don’t throw it away, give it away!’, Freegle matches the items we don’t want with people in our local communities who have a use for it and similarly helps us to locate things that other people want to get rid of. A national network of local groups, which anyone can join for free, Freegle isn’t only a way of making one person’s trash into another person’s treasure, it helps people to save money by obtaining things they need for free and, importantly, cuts down on landfill and incineration.
Ideas for effective recycling were in Cat’s mind after she arrived in Britain from Australia in 1992 and was horrified to find no kerbside recycling. Taking matters into her own hands, she got a van and went around Brighton, picking up empty bottles and cans from her friends and neighbours each week. “They thought I was this wacky girl from Australia,” she told the Guardian in an interview in 2018. “But they indulged me.” Like many great ideas that start out seeming crazy, kerbside recycling is now mainstream.
Brighton & Hove Freegle now has around 30,000 members. In March 2019 it was estimated that 5,321 kilos of unwanted items were given new homes via the site – that’s almost five and a half tons of waste saved from the Newhaven Incinerator. There are 430 groups around the UK with an estimated 2.8 million members.
Between 2012 and 2014 as Materials Coordinator with the University of Brighton, Fletcher worked with architect Duncan Baker-Brown and others to create the Brighton Waste House. Situated on the university campus, this is Europe’s first permanent public building made from over 85 per cent ‘waste’ material, including old plastic razors and toothbrushes, jeans, DVDs and video cassettes. She is currently the first Re-Use Manager for Brighton & Hove City Council, a job which involves finding new homes for the council’s unwanted equipment and furniture. In 2016-17 she oversaw the City Re-Use Project which masterminded the move of a thousand staff from the council’s huge Kings House site, finding ways to redistribute and re-use thousands of items – from office furniture to kitchen equipment – from the 100,000 square feet of office space. Over 300 charities, community groups, schools and hospitals benefited, and some of the innovative re-use ideas included filing cabinets becoming planters, trays and other plastic items being turned into sunglasses – such as those pictured made in conjunction with designer, Ruby Moon – and a ceiling created entirely by ring-binders. This led to the council being awarded the National Recycling Award in 2018 for Local Authority innovation and finding international recognition by being shortlisted for the EUROCITIES awards, which recognise outstanding activities or practices that improve the quality of life for citizens.
Last year Cat Fletcher was voted 2019’s number one ‘Legend of Waste’ in Resource website’s annual Hot 100 list of influencers in the resources and waste industry. She said ‘it’s a huge honour and it’s lovely to know that so many people have voted for me. It reflects the diversity of projects that I’m involved with, which are all about trying to prevent waste, help citizens try and be more resourceful and trying to join up corporates, SMEs, charities and getting some real circular economy collaboration happening across all sorts of different materials and goods.’
Recently Cat has been involved in running Tech-Takeback pop-up shops, events that invite people to bring along old tech, such as laptops, phones, computers, and memory sticks for free data erasure and contribution to charity for re-use. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is the fastest growing waste stream in Britain as we all struggle to keep up with ever improving gadgets. The Tech-Takeback pop-up shops, running in Brighton & Hove for almost two years and now London, have collected over 9 tonnes of unwanted gadgets and redistributed over 100 items. Cat also now part of the eight strong women led Oceans-8 Project, a local environmental initiative created by Melanie Rees, creative director of Brighton’s the green centre to deliver engaging initiatives. Last August the time organised a post-Pride silent disco litter pick on the beach, collecting 500 bags of litter and enabling 1.5 tonnes of plastics, metal and glass litter to be sorted for recycling.
Written by social historian Louise Peskett