Bristol Wood Recycling Project: Uprooted

Since 2004, the Bristol Wood Recycling Project has grown from a shoestring operation of two staff to currently employing 11 people and regularly engaging around forty volunteers. Their collections team have saved almost four and half thousand tons of wood from decaying in landfill, in turn providing Bristol's trade, domestic, creative and alternative communities a fantastic resource of affordable, salvaged timber.

Following their recent move from their home of 14 years, Ecojam sat down to talk to Ben Moss, co-founder and Cooperative Secretary to learn more about the project’s beginnings and future plans.

Before we delve into the project, can you tell us a little bit more about your background?

I graduated with an interesting but essentially useless degree, as many people will be able to identify with, in Anthropology and Geography from Oxford Brookes. While travelling afterwards I became very depressed about the state of the world and wondered what I could do to help. Following a sustainable land use course with Patrick Whitefield (one of the leading and pioneering permaculture authorities in Europe) and a stint planting fruit trees and teaching people to make compost in Malawi, I decided to settle in Bristol. Here I began volunteering with the Community Recycling Network, which is no longer functioning.

So did this lead to inspiration for the project?

I saw Richard Mehmed speak at an event run by the CRN. He set up the first community wood-recycling project in Brighton and had just set up the National Community Wood Recycling Project, with the intention of setting up wood recycling projects throughout the UK. He was saying how we need projects like this: a self-financing business with environmental and social value. 

Whilst at the CRN, I saw an email from the council offering a site on Cattlemarket Road, rent-free for a short period of time and then rolling three months at a time. We were shown around the site by John Bos (now the Council’s Coomunity Buildings Manager), a man who has done great things for the city, applied and got it. We ended up being there for 14 years.

For those who don’t know, could you explain a bit about what the project does?

We send out some caged vans that collect wood waste for a fee. We sort it and about a quarter tends to be reusable. The rest is chipped and used to create energy. We sell the timber in the shop, and we have a workshop in which we make bespoke furniture to order. Timber is also sourced from local woodlands.

As a social enterprise we work with volunteers throughout the process, providing them with training, skills and an inclusive work environment.

Did you realise at the time the demand you would have?

We knew that there will always be construction waste and recycling was growing in importance.  Richard also assured us that it was a viable business model. He gave us everything, he used to come and sleep on my sitting room floor during the early days. We were the first (wood-recycling project) after Brighton and Hove, but now there are over 30 Wood Recycling Projects throughout the country.

We managed to catch the wave of recycling and social enterprise. Now there are loads of social enterprises and reuse is everything. People get it. And we had an amazing location in the centre of town.

As well as a social enterprise, you became a cooperative in 2011. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

As a cooperative, the members, staff and some volunteers have completely shared ownership of the project. There are no shareholders and no dividends paid. In this way we’re able to involve all the people who work here in deciding the direction of the business.

We’ve got big ideas for purchasing this site and setting up as a community enterprise land trust. There are so many social enterprises that exist in borderland spaces that as cities grow, those spaces become unaffordable. We want to be able to break that mould so that buildings can be held in perpetuity for the community by the community. I can’t give away all the details but something really exciting is about to emerge…

How was the big move?

Well 14 years is a long time in one site. It had become our home completely. We always knew that we would have to leave and we were finally issued with that date back in February. The council gave us six months notice and were really fantastic. We asked if we could get anywhere else but because of austerity and this false idol of neoliberalism selling off all community assets to pay off the national debt, the council had nowhere else to offer.

So we went public. A woman called Debs from JLL, a property search company, got in touch and helped us find a site. We got the keys in January, had two weeks to move in and its perfect. Less than a kilometre from our old site, around the corner from the recycling centre and a much bigger workshop and interior retail space. There’s also additional space that we will be able to offer to other likeminded individuals or organisations in time.

You mentioned that Richard mentored you. Have you mentored any new projects?

I tend to just send them Richard’s way. I feel the most useful thing I can do is just be as present and supportive of other people getting involved here. A coop and business of this size is a complex organism and there is a lot of institutionalised memory that has to be shared. I just try to be useful in terms of steering things along.

Along with volunteering, how else can people get involved?

There’s a waiting list for volunteering but we aim to move through that quickly. And there are a number of things you can help with. People always want to get in the workshop. It’s a dangerous place and so we have a series of progressive steps before people can get there. Watch this space when we purchase this property. We’ll need practical, hands on help but are also open to suggestions.

People can sign up to volunteer with the Bristol Wood Recycling Project here.

Written by Max Thrower. 

Photo: “This is an acorn that had sprouted behind the old gates. I found it, and on the morning of leaving, re-potted it. William here is a bit of a mascot.”