A social economy agency which provides work for people with disabilities or health conditions is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Every year USEL, from its Belfast-base, employs, supports and trains over 1200 people with disabilities or health conditions across the North.

Initially starting as a workshop for the blind, USEL has grown to include anyone with a disability. Over recent years, it has gone from strength to strength and over the past decade has doubled in size.  

Chief Executive Bill Atkinson has championed the Usel Recycling Solutions services which focuses on the recycling of mattresses, carpet, furniture, plastic, cardboard and waste electrical items. 

"Our aim is to keep the resources within the economy until the product has reached the end of its life cycle," explains Bill. 

​"By operating a Circular Economy model, it allows us to create more sustainable jobs for people with disabilities and health conditions across Northern Ireland."

As the North's only mattress recycling provider, USEL diverts over 1,000 tons of waste from landfill every year — including hundreds of mattresses destined for the city dump. 

The enterprise has many schemes people involved, providing a wide range of 

During the pandemic, the North Belfast-headquartered company pivoted to PPE production. 

"We were like every business everywhere - panicking," says Bill. "But we adapted the business model and started started producing face shields and were involved in making hospital scrubs."

USEL's Employment Support Officers and Training Officers work closely with programme participants to explore their career options and provide a range of supports and assistance to help them move into their chosen employment

"We shouldn't be a destination we should be a stepping stone," says Bill. 

"We allow people to try various roles and find what they're good at and what they enjoy."

USEL Employee Thomas Bradhshaw has worked at USEL in many roles over his six years but has now settled on his favourite job - confidential shredding.

"It's great I really like it, I've learned forklift training and manual handling," says Thomas. 

Thomas's co-worker Stephen McCleung also works in the shredding department. He has also worked in many other roles as USEL - beginning in administration, working in the recycling department and finally shredding.

USEL is the only social enterprise in Northern Ireland offering confidential shredding and  recently won a large government contract which was weighted to take into consideration the social good the agency provides.  

"Delivering maximum social value from public procurement is one of my key priorities," said Finance Minister Conor Murphy at the time, "and I am delighted that by awarding this contract we have been able to support this social enterprise which is supporting people with disabilities and health-related conditions into employment."

Adds Bill: "We are a cheaper and more cost-effective alternative to onsite shredders. Our secure document shredding service covers councils, schools, banks and government departments as well as a range of smaller businesses."