Recycling & Reuse: Worth the Effort? Worth the Effort.

This is a story for everyone who says that recycling and reuse cost too much and aren’t worth the effort, and for everyone who has to deal with those folks.

Newton is a suburban city, population about 85,000, less than ten miles from downtown Boston.  When the City opened a new high school in August 2010, it reused and donated locally as much furniture as possible from the old school, but was still left with more than 4,000 items of surplus furniture and equipment that needed to go away.  Most of the furniture was packed into the gymnasium and pool area; the rest was scattered throughout the old campus.

The City faced tough challenges.  The school is located in a residential neighborhood, hampering access for large vehicles.  Loading facilities consisted of a single two-foot high dock accessed by one double door.  The surplus was less packed than stacked and jumbled into the gym and pool area, a big 3-D jigsaw puzzle, and there were long carries for the surplus that wasn’t in these locations.  The surplus was a mix of a lot of usable stuff with a large fraction too decrepit to be used again.

And because of delays in construction schedule and bid preparation, the City had less than two weeks to complete the project before school started – for RFP, bids, award, mobilization, and implementation.  After bids and award, the actual project had to be completed in just three days.

There were three options for the surplus:  (1) Throw all the stuff out; (2) Recycle some and throw the rest out; (3) Attempt to reuse as much as

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possible.  The City went through a competitive bid, and selected IRN’s surplus reuse program over the alternatives.  Reuse offered environmental and social benefits, but the determining factor was cost.  More about that below.

On two days notice, IRN scheduled a 15-man moving crew on each of three days.  Seven trailers were loaded on Day 1, nine trailers on Day 2, and seven trailers on Day 3.  With such short lead time, IRN divided the surplus between eighteen shipping containers that were loaded directly for overseas destinations, plus five storage trailers that were removed to a local yard.  Later these were unloaded and repacked into containers for overseas shipment.  In addition, eleven metal recycling containers were loaded with 37 tons of materials that were too worn or damaged to be reused.

At any given time there were between one and three trailers on the loading dock, with an IRN project manager directing surplus into the correct trailer as movers took it from the building.  In intervals when there were only one or two trailers at the dock, IRN kept the crew moving and staging furniture as close to the dock as possible, so the next trailer could be loaded efficiently when it arrived.  There were also two big dumpsters for pieces too damaged to be reused:  one for items that could be recycled as metal, one for mixed debris.  IRN’s onsite manager made sure that every item went into the right container.

In all, IRN packed more than 4,200 pieces into 23 trailers and shipping containers.  About 2,000 items were shipped to Food for the Poor’s central Caribbean warehouse in Jamaica.  Although FFTP ships from Jamaica throughout the Caribbean, most of the Newton North surplus will ultimately be shipped to Haiti for reconstruction after the January 2010 earthquake, and now from floods after Tropical Storm Tomas.  Four loads or approximately 700 pieces were shipped to the Fundacion Nuevos Horizontes in El Salvador for community building programs, and four loads were provided to the American Nicaraguan Foundation, whose long-term mission is to construct the 400,000-500,000 homes needed to alleviate the effects of natural disasters and long-term poverty. 

What was it they received?  AV equipment – 87 items; 170 lab benches; 285 bookcases; 144 storage cabinets; 48 study carrels; 18 wheeled carts; 1,226 chairs; 695 desk-armchairs; 37 couches; 359 full desks; 147 file cabinets; 20 pieces of gym equipment; 33 pieces of kitchen equipment; 40 locker units; 56 shelf units; 87 stools; 518 work and conference tables; plus about 300 other items.  Another 37 tons of damaged or unusable items were recycled locally for metal and/or wood content. 

And what did it cost?  Besides making an incredible difference in the lives of thousands of kids and grownups, besides saving hundreds of cubic yards of landfill space and gaining all the environmental benefits of reuse, what was the bottom line, the dollars and cents bottom line?

Because this was a competitively bid public project, we can answer that question exactly.  IRN’s cost to reuse 80% of Newton’s surplus and recycle the remainder was 38% LESS than the next lowest competing bid for recycling and/or disposal.

So the next time some schmo tells you that reuse and recycling aren’t worth it, show them a picture of kids in Jamaica or Haiti sitting in a classroom using the stuff they say we should just toss in a landfill.  And show them the price tag.  Show them what you already know: that what’s good for the environment and good for society is much more often than not good for the economy as well.  Hearts, minds, and wallets, almost always in alignment.

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Saying Thanks to Columbia

It’s an understatement to say that Columbia University was transformative for my Dad.  He was a poor kid from a Depression-beaten family in the Irish ghetto of Dobbs Ferry.  In 1939 Columbia gave him a $600 scholarship and a part-time job and said “Make it if you can.”  Four years later he was an honors History graduate, managing the campus laundry service, and voted Most Likely to Succeed by his classmates.  He never forgot the doors that Columbia opened for him, nor the personal potential that Columbia helped him discover.

Most of all, he never forgot the opportunity that Columbia gave him.  In 1939 there weren’t a whole lot of schools opening doors to a world-class education for poor Irish kids.  Columbia changed his life.

Sometimes wheels turn slowly.  I was 50 before I as much as saw the Columbia campus.  A country boy by nature, I went to school in New Hampshire and stayed there.  Went to a wedding in NYC in 1980, but beyond that New York and Columbia were a different planet.

Along the way my Dad helped me start my own business in recycling, IRN – the Recycling Network.  And that, eventually, closed the circle back to Columbia.  Two of IRN’s specialties are finding ways to reuse surplus property, and recycling from construction projects.  Columbia asked us to take a look at a project that combined the best – or worst – of both.

As part of its Manhattanville development, Columbia acquired Reality House, a former methadone clinic on West 125th Street.  Columbia rehabbed two floors into its Manhattanville project offices.  The remaining two floors were left as Reality House left them:  a mess.  There were over 10,000 square feet of partially built-out space: a forest of studs and wiring and door frames.  This and the rest of the two floors were packed with the detritus of nearly three decades:  old computers and monitors and IBM Selectric typewriters, hundreds of boxes of documents, a thousand or more pieces of furniture, fluorescent lights and fixtures, piles of scrap metal, unused building materials, cardboard boxes filled with clothes and toys and office supplies and Christmas decorations.  Three decades of junk, strewn and thrown and jumbled.

Normally a mess like this is a demolition project; recycle what you can, throw the rest away.  But that wasn’t possible at Reality House.  Among the documents were patient and financial records.  The computers also presumably contained confidential patient data.  The monitors, fluorescent bulbs and fixtures all contained hazardous materials.  All of these materials are regulated and have to be handled properly.  There were tens of thousands of pounds of usable building materials, doors and windows, wiring, all of that surplus furniture, all in good condition and 100% reusable.  And there was Columbia’s very serious commitment to the environment and sustainability.  Disposal simply wasn’t an option.

Where most folks would see nothing but problems, IRN and Columbia saw opportunity.  Working with Columbia’s Manhattanville management team and Community Affairs office, we developed a project that brought community-based groups together to take advantage of bright nuggets in the Reality House mess:  Build It Green! NYC (BIG), a Queens-based nonprofit retail that gathers and resells salvaged and surplus building materials at deep discounts to New York residents and small businesses; Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), a nonprofit that works with New York’s unions to bring women into skilled, higher-paying jobs in the construction trades through pre-apprenticeship training programs; and The School of Cooperative Technical Education (SCTE), an alternative school within the NYC Department of Education that provides students with the opportunity to learn traditional trades-based skills along with a variety of state-of-the-art technologies.

Over the course of a month in July and August 2009, NEW and SCTE crews removed nearly 70 tons of reusable and recyclable materials from Reality House.  More than 3,000 pieces, over 10 tons, of furniture and building materials will be injected straight back into New York communities through Build It Green.  Three shipping containers were loaded with surplus furniture and supplies for disaster relief in Nicaragua and Jamaica.  More than 21 tons of scrap metal were recycled, along with 11 tons of paper and cardboard (the paper was shredded to assure destruction of confidential information).  The computers, monitors, fluorescents, and other hazmat-containing wastes were recycled to the highest regulatory and environmental standards.  Overall, more than 90% of accumulated Reality House “junk” was reused or recycled; less than 10% was thrown away.

But most important, more than 30 disadvantaged young men and women from NEW and SCTE got serious job training.  Training in tool use, construction and dismantling techniques, electrician skills, safety, teamwork, communications.  Deconstruction is the most actively growing (right now the only growing) field in the construction trades.  There’s pressing need for workers trained in deconstruction, and before Reality House New York had essentially no work crews with these capabilities.  NEW has pressed ahead with Columbia’s Harlem Small Business Development Center, turning its Reality House experience into a permanent enterprise.  IRN has proposed NEW workers on more NYC-area jobs, and several of the NEW women have been offered interviews or positions in union apprenticeship programs.

Closing my Dad’s circle.  Columbia offered my Dad a shot when no one else had the concern or sympathy to do so.  Nearly 70 years later, Columbia is still at it, still offering opportunities to poor kids from the community.  My Dad passed away in 2001, but he wouldn’t be surprised.  He’d be proud, and he’d be happy that my own firm, the firm he helped start, was able to be part of it.  But mostly he’d be happy for the kids, getting the same kind of chance from Columbia that he did back in 1939.