Out Of the News, Not Out Of the Woods: Reconstruction Begins in Haiti

Hospital under reconstruction

The humanitarian crisis caused by the Haiti earthquake has fallen out of the evening news. But that doesn’t mean the crisis is in any way diminished.

At this point, four months after Haiti’s earthquake, the situation has been stabilized in terms of the most urgent needs for food, water, medicines, and temporary shelter. These supplies are flowing into the country and are being fairly efficiently distributed where they are most needed. Another top priority has been to repair roads and ports. You’ll recall from January and February the many news stories about supplies piled up at the Port au Prince airport, and hundreds of containers stacked on U.S. piers waiting for Haitian port facilities to reopen. This situation is improving. Port au Prince facilities have partially reopened, and containers are also being routed through smaller Haitian ports and through the Dominican Republic.

Now the focus shifts to long term reconstruction. The earthquake destroyed tens of thousands of businesses, and many hundreds of schools, hospitals and health clinics. Hundreds of thousands of homes need to be rebuilt and furnished for Haitian families. Several IRN partners are already on the ground building simple sturdy wooden residences, much more resilient in the face of a future earthquake than the mud and cement huts they replace. This effort will go on for years.

As structures are rebuilt, there’s equal need for furnishings and supplies to fit them out. Tables and chairs, bureaus, beds and mattresses for homes. Desks and chairs and bookshelves for schools. File cabinets and shelving and desks for businesses. Cabinets and exam tables and beds and a thousand other supplies for clinics and hospitals. Stoves, ranges, refrigerators, serving equipment for private and institutional kitchens.

In short, there’s critical long-term need in Haiti for surplus property that can be sourced from the U.S. I don’t want to beat the drum for my own organization because this is what we do, but every business and institution in the U.S. should remember, before tossing surplus into the dumpster, that there are people just a couple hundred miles from our borders for whom that surplus is, quite literally, a treasure. And they aren’t necessarily in Haiti; they aren’t necessarily beyond our borders. There are millions of people right here in the U.S. – families coming out of the welfare system, homeless people establishing new lives, families recovering from natural disaster or economic misfortune – whose need for furnishings to equip their lives is equally great. It should be painful for any American to know that usable surplus is being thrown away in America.

It’s hard for almost anyone in the U.S. to imagine what living conditions are like in Haiti. In the U.S. the average house size is about 2,400 square feet, for the average household of 2.6 people. In Haiti the average house size is about 200 square feet, for an average household of about 7 people. That’s more than twice as many people living in a home less than one-tenth as big. You almost have to stop and read that again: more than twice as many people, living in a home less than one-tenth as big. As Americans, we are among the most fortunate people on earth. It’s not much to ask that we offer our used but still usable furnishings to those who are among the least fortunate.

A Little Thought and Effort Yield 88% Waste Reduction and 59% Savings

Company C in Concord, NH makes and sells high-quality bedding, furniture, and fabrics. Its products are made in more than 20 countries and sold to customers in twice that many.

Company C’s warehouse is a buzz-saw. Trailers and containers from U.S. and international manufacturing plants are unloaded daily. Merchandise is unpacked, racked, unracked, and repacked. Trailers and less-than-truckload carriers are loaded and dispatched.

Eighteen months ago Company C’s waste program was as simple as a hauler could make it. There was a 10-cubic-yard open top container for trash and another 10-yard container for loose cardboard. Each container took up a space on Company C’s loading dock. Their hauler wouldn’t take their bottles and cans or their office paper. They didn’t track quantities, so Company C had no idea how much they were throwing away and they didn’t offer any alternatives.

In late 2008 Company C asked IRN to take a look, and what we saw was opportunity. Most of their wastes were three recyclable materials: cardboard, plastic sheeting, and woven polypropylene “burlap.” Quantities were large enough to justify a vertical baler. The rest of their wastes were divided between bottles and cans, office paper, and periodic quantities of electronics, metals, batteries, excess furniture, and other miscellaneous materials. All recyclable, and we could put them all on a truck along with bales of cardboard and plastic.

The pieces came together in mid-2009. In the first six months Company C reduced waste disposal by 88% (compared to the previous 6-month period); recycled more than 11 tons of baled cardboard and plastics; recycled about half a ton of office paper, bottles and cans; and reduced waste management costs by 59%. The baler cost about $16,000. Over a 20-year life, Company C’s return on this investment is close to 60%. No small achievement.

An environmental success story, and in tough economic times a meaningful addition to Company C’s bottom line. All that, for asking some simple questions about trash.

Weird Waste Collections and Electronics Amnesty: Simple & Successful

Electronics Amnesties are a different take on Weird Waste. Used electronics are a liability. They contain information you don’t want to escape. They contain hazardous substances. Many of them, particularly CRT and flat-screen monitors, TVs, laptops, and anything with a rechargeable battery, are regulated wastes. And like dust mites or cockroaches, they’re everywhere – you just can’t see them. Hiding in closets, behind desks, under work tables, stashed in storage rooms.

An Amnesty is a way to get rid of the junk and the liability. It’s like when the library lets you bring back your way overdue books without a fine. Tell your staff that for a period of days or weeks they can bring their old electronics to be recycled, and you’ll turn a blind eye to the fact that they’ve been sitting on these things for years.

We did this a few years ago with MIT, and the results were staggering – over 40 tons in two weeks. Granted, that was MIT, but the basic story is the same at almost every organization: electronics are a hidden liability. An Amnesty is a way to make it go away.

Think Zero Waste

There is nothing we throw away that is not a resource.

Paper – To make paper we kill trees, hurt the land, and damage ecosystems. Almost 100% of paper can be recycled. The small fraction that can’t be recycled can be composted or burned to create energy – renewable, carbon-neutral energy.

Plastic – Plastic is highly refined oil. On a planet where wars are fought over oil, it’s idiotic to throw plastics away, which we do by the millions of pounds every day. The best thing to do with this highly engineered oil is reuse or recycle it. If we can’t do that, we should burn it for energy. Plastic is (contrary to widespread belief) a very clean fuel, much cleaner than oil or coal.

Glass – There’s plenty of raw material for glass; we’re not going to run out of sand anytime soon. But making glass from sand uses huge amounts of energy. Making glass from glass doesn’t. Glass in almost all of its forms can be reused or recycled. Energy (coal, oil, natural gas) is the resource that’s saved.

Metals – The planet is running out of metals. Every scrap of metal we use can be recycled. Recycled metals, all metals, are worth a lot of money.

Food waste – One of the most serious issues on our planet is loss of fertile soil. This is true in the U.S. as it is around the world. Food waste composts into high quality soil. It is a resource that can be returned to the earth that produced it. Food waste also contains a lot of energy. That’s the reason we eat it. That energy can be captured by converting food waste to liquid fuels: ethanol or bio-diesel. A lot of food waste can be converted to animal feed, freeing up other food for human instead of animal consumption.

The list goes on and on. There really isn’t much “waste” in the world, just a lot of resources we’re throwing away. And, there’s more to those resources. Reuse and recycling create jobs. Compared to using virgin raw materials, reuse and recycling are immensely better for the environment. Reuse and recycling support local, not multi-national economies.

So, think zero waste. Even as a recycler, I used to think Zero Waste was a silly, unrealistic goal. Not any more. There’s nothing in our “waste” that isn’t a resource, that can’t be put to productive use, that can’t conserve energy and resources if reused or recycled, that can’t, if reused or recycled, make the planet a healthier, more robust place to live.

The reverse is also true. Everything that we waste tends to run down the planetary ecosystem and the worldwide economic system.

Think zero waste. It’s the only way forward.