Recycling furniture – changing office work challenges the circular economy

2021-02-03 Kati Pitkänen, Jaana Kolehmainen and Alli Sirén

Thousands of offices relocate in Finland every year, and as a result, furniture and supplies that are no longer needed become useless. Many businesses and different types of online platforms have risen around the recycling of these items in the recent years. Traditional office furniture companies offer second-hand furniture that has been repaired and restored alongside new items, and they pledge to recycle old furniture that is still fit for use.

Reuse, restoration and repairs are in a central role in the transfer towards the circular economy. Someone else might be happy to use products and items you no longer need. When the Joensuu office of the Finnish Environment Institute relocated, we got the chance to test the recycling and reuse of used office supplies and furniture.

One hundred shelves and cabinets looking for new homes

The initial excitement turned into a feeling of slight despair when we realised the total number of goods that needed to be recycled. The facilities’ purpose of use had changed over the decades from a laboratory to office-only use, and the number of employees had plummeted to around 15 from the several dozens who were employed in the busiest days. Such changes leave behind heaps of items and furniture that are no longer needed.

Even though some of the old furniture could be relocated or repaired and adapted for use at the new office space, around one hundred different types of shelves and cabinets, dozens of chairs, tables, laboratory equipment and dishes, a couple of couches and some kitchen supplies were looking for new homes.

It proved to be particularly challenging to find a new home for the countless paper-storing solutions of different shapes and sizes: from drawers to binder shelves and binders to plastic folders.

One man's trash is another man's treasure

We managed to put 70 per cent of the furniture and supplies in the old office space into reuse. Furniture and laboratory equipment that were no longer needed were sold to different parts of Finland on the service. Many pieces of furniture and other items found new homes with the employees and their networks. Things were also donated to the staff and students of the University of Eastern Finland.

Electronic tables, screens, keyboards, freezers and fridges and retro furniture found new homes quickly. Laboratory glassware was of interest to biology students in particular, and dozens of measuring bottles became materials for a glassworks course. A local artists’ association found new use for a mixed selection of coffee mugs that had been left behind in the kitchen. Day care children got an old fax machine and a selection of remote controls for their “workshop”. The crime novels of the book exchange point were a hit in the recycling shelf at the Joensuu Main Library.

All employees got involved and made an effort with innovative ideas, but still, in the end, a total of three hundred desks, chairs, shelves and cabinets ended up in waste crushing and utilised as materials and energy.

Reuse takes time and expertise

There were no guide books or instructions for reuse: many things had to be learned the hard way.

We learned that the planning of reuse should start at the same time with the relocation planning. Goals and rules need to be agreed upon: do we want to sell or donate furniture, where and how should the sales revenue be entered into the books.

An inventory needs to be made of the furniture and equipment, and you must find out what kind of channels for reuse and donating items are available locally. A lot of times, bigger organisations are not as flexible as smaller ones in finding ways for donating or purchasing second-hand furniture, and sometimes the right recipients are found in surprising directions.

Selling second-hand furniture is challenging. The online auction website, was used for furniture sales, but it is challenging to produce an attractive sales ad for 40 identical binder shelves. Bids started coming in only just before the lots were about to close, which led us to think that there was not much demand for this type of furniture and we only posted lots of a part of them.

It is also important to reserve sufficient resources for the planning and realisation of reuse in the relocating process. It is important that one or more people are appointed responsible for the reuse project, and to manage the project. We were unsure about using work hours for the planning and realisation of the reuse project, but in the end, this proved to financially viable. With 70 per cent of the property ending up in reuse, approximately EUR 10,000 was saved compared to everything being crushed as waste. A few hundred euros were also acquired as sales revenue of the old furniture.

Post-corona office life

Our test revealed that reuse needs a systematic approach and effort, but it can also mean significant financial gain at best. Paying attention to the goals of circular economy in their design, so that furniture were modular and adjustable to new purposes of use, could mean a significant boost of their reuse potential.

Office work is in a constant state of flux. In adaptable facilities and open-plan offices that seek to be paper-free, many of the pieces of furniture that used to be found in every office just ten years ago, are no longer needed. The digital leap and transfer towards remote work, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, means office facilities will become smaller and there will be new types of demands for office furniture in the near future, including the hygienics of the materials and their cleanability. We hope that the changing demands can be made compatible with material reuse and recyclability.

Kati Pitkänen, Jaana Kolehmainen and Alli Sirén
Finnish Environment Institute SYKE

The authors are experts at SYKE's Joensuu office and work on various research and development projects in the circular economy. They were involved in the planning and carried out the implementation of circular economy philosophy in an office relocation process.

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