Making Reuse Mainstream
A combination of public and private organizations are working on alternatives to recycling
It's the bales of stuffed animals that elicit the gasps on the Goodwill Resource Center tours. They're at the back of the warehouse, past the doors to the outlet store, where stuff of all kinds sells for $1.49 a pound. They're past the baler, which compresses T-shirts and towels into half-ton bricks for wholesale buyers. Past the pallets of books stacked 25 feet high, the endless rows of suitcases, and the shrink-wrapped TVs. Something about the once-loved teddy bears mashed together in an anonymous block, valued for their collective weight rather than the memories they evoke, makes visitors suck in their breath.
But Goodwill can't afford to be sentimental – it doesn't have time. With almost 95 million pounds of donations last year, it has to process goods as fast as it can, to sell them in stores, at the outlet, or to vendors who take them to flea markets, resale shops, online auctions, and domestic and overseas recycling operations. The stuffed animals are both the evidence of a successful reuse operation – Goodwill Central Texas keeps 81% of the donations it receives out of the landfill – and of just how much stuff Austinites discard.
Goodwill Central Texas is one of the largest reusers of materials in Austin, but it's hardly alone. The last quarter of 2015 saw the establishment of the Austin Creative Reuse Center, the kickoff of the city's Fixit Clinic series, the grand opening of the new Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and the rollout of the city's upgraded Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center. Still, zero-waste advocates say reuse is often overlooked in favor of the most famous of the "Three Rs," recycling – even though recycling requires more energy and resources than reusing a product in its current form. And in Austin's master plan for getting to zero waste, its "Highest and Best Use Hierarchy" ranks reuse third on the list – behind both sustainable product redesign and waste reduction, and ahead of recycling and composting.
"I always call reuse the lesser known of the Rs that people don't like to talk about," says Blythe Christopher de Orive, founder of the art materials exchange site Re-Sourcery.org and a member of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance. "It seems like everybody can get behind recycling, because it's like, 'Oh, I can put it in a bin, and it goes somewhere else.' Reuse is not as sexy. But I think it's a matter of behavior change – we have to make it seem cool."
When Austin was starting to make plans to reach zero waste, in 2008, experts estimated residents were throwing away $11 million of usable goods each year. Then, last year the city conducted its first-ever study of what's actually in its residential trash. The study's most publicized conclusion was that 90% of what residents throw away could be recycled or composted – and as a result the city amped up its promotion of recycling. But the study also shows that people are still trashing reusable stuff: an estimated 3,300 tons of textiles and 344 tons of electronics last year (another 276 tons of textiles were incorrectly placed in blue recycling bins). That's a lot of shirts and DVD players in the landfill.
For a city that just missed its zero-waste benchmark goal – Austin was supposed to reach 50% diversion by 2015, and instead is hovering around 42% – those materials represent a missed opportunity, both environmentally and economically. Making reuse mainstream will be crucial to meeting the city's goal of diverting 90% of materials from the landfill by 2040, and experts say it will require a combination of government leadership, corporate responsibility, and individual commitment.
Austin Craigslist, Feb. 2: KIDS TOYS. Total of 10 stuffed animals (1 white cat, 1 lamb, 1 horse, 1 bulldog with skirt, 1 pink pig, 1 mother rabbit with 1 baby rabbit, 1 brown dog, 1 red crab, 1 reindeer) Very clean and excellent condition. $10 cash.
When donations are dropped off at the 50 donation sites in Goodwill Central Texas' 15-county service area, they're vetted for salability and displayed in a store for about three weeks. What hasn't sold by then is taken to the Goodwill outlet at its Resource Center on Burleson Road. From the loading dock everything is dumped onto rolling tables that are wheeled onto the sales floor, where stuff is sold by the pound. ("It's Black Friday every day in the Goodwill outlet," Director of Development Lisa Apfelberg says.) The tables stay in the store for less than an hour before being rolled back to the warehouse, where materials picked over by the outlet's voracious shoppers are then sorted into 30 categories of recyclable material: electronics, metal, rugs, purses, skates. Whatever's left after about two minutes of sorting is trash. The outlet staff turns over an average of 1,300 tables a day in a highly efficient process that's the subject of Forklift Danceworks' new show this weekend (see "Goodwill Hosts Reuse-Inspired Performance," p.32).
The stuff that gets a second chance through Goodwill also gives its clients a second chance: Proceeds from the stores constitute 55% of the funding for Goodwill's high school and job training programs, aimed at people who have disabilities, limited education, criminal records, or a history of homelessness.
Thus far in 2016, donations to Goodwill Central Texas are up 20% year over year. "We're struggling to keep up with how generous Austin is, but it's a good challenge to have," says Assistant Aftermarket Manager Timothy Boston. He says that in addition to the clothes, electronics, and housewares, people donate some head-scratchers: family photos, sharks preserved in formaldehyde, a terrarium that employees discovered still had a lizard in it. Some items are beyond repair, but others are brand-new. Aftermarket Manager Donnie Brown remembers seeing a spotless Vera Wang dress with the tags still on it.
"I've noticed that the life span of people using an item isn't that long," Brown says. "I've seen computers and stereos that look like they're probably 6 months old. As soon as a new technology comes out, Austinites want to receive that new technology." Goodwill sent about 2.5 million pounds of computers last year to be refurbished or recycled through its partnership with Dell, called Dell Reconnect. But even Goodwill can't find a home for everything it receives. Last year Austinites donated 2.5 million pounds of televisions, which are not particularly marketable, and also difficult to recycle. The Resource Center ends up with 80 pounds a day of unsold wicker baskets which can't be recycled due to their treated wood. Glass and furniture make up much of the remaining landfilled material.
Of course, Goodwill's resale-as-reuse model is present across Austin, in consignment shops primarily peddling clothing and housewares. That retail mix makes north Burnet Road the perfect location for the Austin Public Library's used bookstore, Recycled Reads. While libraries are the ultimate model of reuse, even they generate waste when books are withdrawn because they're dirty, outdated, or redundant (a bestseller like The Martian needs lots of shelf space now, but it won't in five years). And books can't simply be put in a recycling bin, because the covers clog processing equipment and the glue in bindings degrades the quality of the baled paper. To keep withdrawn library books out of the landfill and offer residents a place to exchange their own unwanted reading material, the library opened Recycled Reads in 2009. The store accepts donations from the public, along with the six pallets a week of material removed from APL collections, for a total of about 70,000 pieces of material – or 12 to 15 tons – a month. What isn't sold in the store is picked up by Goodwill to travel through its retail funnel, or sold to Thrift Books, an online book dealer that pays Recycled Reads by the pound. What Thrift Books can't sell is donated or recycled into paper stock.
Recycled Reads and its pioneering manager Mindy Reed have received national recognition for their efforts: In 2013, the store was awarded an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to create online training for other libraries to emulate the Austin model, and in 2015 Reed was named one of 50 "movers and shakers" in her field by Library Journal. "I'm proud of that award because any innovative idea takes a while before it makes its way through the rest of the system," Reed says. "You have to have your allies – like other city departments – in place to pull it off. But I believe other cities will see we have to do something to have a sustainable model [in libraries], and I'm proud Austin is setting the benchmark."
Austin also set a benchmark with its Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which, when it opened in 1992, was the first of its kind. The retail outlet sells gently used construction materials, fixtures, furniture, and home decor, with profits going to support Habitat's mission of building affordable homes. (Donations are not used to build the homes; the nonprofit works with wholesalers that cut it a deal.) In late January, contractors renovating an apartment complex in the Domain asked the ReStore to collect some items they needed removed: doors, ceiling fans, cabinets, sinks, light fixtures, all of them in good condition. But the store also gets donations of brand-new items – almost 2,000 gallons of eggshell paint purchased for a new Downtown high-rise that turned out to be the wrong color were then donated by the construction company. Batches of tile too small to sell in a traditional retail setting. Jacuzzi tubs that showrooms purged to make room for new inventory.
"We might have a lot of the same stuff as Home Depot, but we service a completely different client," says Store Manager David Little. "It doesn't always have to do with income level; it has everything to do with being more conscious about the cost of things and keeping things recycled."
One of the newest entrants to the resale market is the Austin Creative Reuse Center, which opened last fall but is hosting an official celebration this Saturday, Feb. 13. Tucked in a storefront in the Linc shopping center, near the ACC Highland campus, the nonprofit center accepts donations of fabric, art and office supplies, and repurposable materials from conferences and expos, and resells them at a discount. The space is an upgrade to the operation that had previously been housed in founder Rebecca Stuch's garage, but it's already feeling cramped. In its 2014 fiscal year, Austin Creative Reuse collected and rehomed 3 tons of materials. Now that the storefront is open, it's processing 2 tons every month as businesses donate unsold inventory and people clean out their craft closets.
"So many people have great intentions that they're going to make something, but then they don't have time," Stuch says. "The idea is, bring that stuff to us, and we'll be your craft closet, or the storage and tinkering area in your garage."
The center sells odds and ends like cardboard tubes, fabric scraps, and CD cases, but its inventory also includes supplies that have never been used. "One way people talk about reuse is that it's going to be something really worn out or dirty, and sometimes it's not any of that," Stuch says, pointing to a bolt of pristine blue organza donated by a wedding decorator. "It can be something brand new, but the person ordered too much, or they were going to start a project and didn't finish it."
Borrow and Share
Austin Craigslist, Jan. 31: A huge name brand lot of women's clothing sizes L/XL and 14/16.... Brand names include; Gap, New York & Company, Eddie Bauer, and more.... They are all worn but still in great condition. Well actually a few still has the tag on them! ... What could get better.
Another approach to reuse involves trading or sharing, rather than selling. At the Toybrary, near Anderson Lane and MoPac, toddlers bang cheerfully on xylophones and wobble on rocking horses while owner Liza Wilson checks out a toy to a member parent. Opened in July 2013, the storefront has a selection of 1,000 toys – puzzles, dolls, pretend food, shape sorters, blocks – that members, who pay a monthly fee, can borrow, three at a time. Wilson, a former preschool teacher, chooses her inventory based on Montessori-influenced criteria: The toys have an educational bent, and none require batteries. They come from eBay, children's resale shops, garage sales, the South Austin secondhand shop Anna's Toy Depot, and occasional donations. All are cleaned with a disinfecting mixture of lavender oil and water between borrows.
Every day Wilson hears people talk about how they're overwhelmed with toys at home, whether due to the generosity of grandparents, children growing bored with materials they've outgrown, or a culture that encourages continual consumption. "It's not anybody's fault, but the 'system' right now is wrong," she says. "We're not doing toys the right way, because buying and buying doesn't make sense when the kids are going through them so quickly. What makes sense is to borrow or share toys. My motto is 'Happy wallets, happy kids, less clutter, less waste.'"
In April the Toybrary will host a children's and baby clothes exchange with Ashley Wearing, founder of the Austin Clothes Exchange. The swap meet started four years ago in Wearing's home, but when monthly attendance surpassed 100 she found a larger venue at the HOPE Farmers Market. Now, every first Sunday, Wearing sets up a table, clothes rack, and tent, and invites thrift-minded shoppers to drop off their unwanted clothes and browse the piles for new treasures. In addition to her regular gig at the farmers' market, she's hosted swaps at Patagonia, TOMS Roasting Company, and the BabyEarth store in Round Rock. At the end of the swap, whatever's left – and there are always leftover clothes – is donated to a worthy cause, sometimes the homeless members of a church that meets under the I-35 bridge.
"People are becoming more aware of the practices with manufacturing companies, especially in places like Africa and India, where clothes are being mass-produced for very low wages," Wearing says. "I feel like it is necessary for us to get to a point where we reuse our clothes and anything that we can within our community."
She laughs as she describes seeing particular outfits cycle through the exchange multiple times. "There's a dress that I swapped four years ago – it must have exchanged between 30 people already. Imagine if we all did that. No one would really ever have to shop for clothes."
A similar exchange – but with a small price tag – happens every semester at the University of Texas, which has its own goal of zero waste by 2020. The Trash to Treasure donation drive led by the Campus Environmental Center, a student organization, collects belongings the 7,500 campus residents don't want or didn't make time to move at the end of each semester. In May 2015 the collection bins gathered nearly 15,000 pounds of clothes, furnishings, school supplies, and food (mac and cheese, ramen, Wheat Thins). The clothes and salable housewares are sorted, stored until the next semester, and then offered back to students in a series of sales. Sheets and towels go to the animal shelter for bedding, and some T-shirts were given to inmates in a women's jail who stitched them into reusable bags, which were then donated to shoppers at a food pantry.
Austin Craigslist, Feb. 8: Basically majority of items in my garage I would like to give away for free. Just take what you want/need. Don't be greedy.
Every reuse activity contributes to "diversion" – keeping things out of the landfill – but not every activity is easy to measure. To understand diversion, imagine a conveyor belt. At one end is a pile of everything Austinites discard: old clothes, clean newspaper, extra food from a banquet, dirty diapers, yard trimmings, a working toaster, banana peels. At the other end is the landfill. As the pile moves down the conveyor belt, robot arms pick out certain items and haul them away. The banquet food is taken to a homeless shelter, the clothes and toaster to a thrift store, the newspaper to a recycler, the yard trimmings and banana peels to a compost pile. By the time the pile reaches the landfill, all that's left is the diapers. That's essentially what 90% diversion – Austin's zero-waste goal – looks like. Right now the diversion rate is 42%.
The Resource Recovery Master Plan, approved by City Council in 2011, includes plans to increase diversion through reuse. It projects that 7,500 tons of materials could be diverted through reuse by 2020, and 25,000 tons by 2030. The tonnage would come from "teacher creative reuse centers" that funnel donated artistic supplies into classrooms, and four "Austin reuse centers" staffed by nonprofits where residents can drop off larger items. While the first such centers were projected to open in 2013, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert says the bids he received from potential operators were too high, so his department switched gears. The plan is now to open one reuse drop-off center every two years. The first of the centers, the Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center in South Austin, a merger of the Household Hazardous Waste Facility and Resource Recovery Center, opened October 2015. The new center is a one-stop shop for residents to get rid of recyclables, Styrofoam, batteries, electronics, and bulky items; it also replaces the services previously offered by Ecology Action's Downtown collection center.
The "reuse" in the center's name means that when customers drop off potentially hazardous waste that still has value, like half a bottle of Windex, the items are set aside for the public to peruse. The same goes for art supplies like paint and brushes, which are housed in a shed open to self-identified teachers and artists. Latex paint that's still usable is mixed with like colors to make Austin ReBlend, a giveaway paint that comes in three colors. Last year the center remixed 28,000 gallons of it.
But whether the reuse centers will divert the tonnage projected in the master plan remains to be seen. After all, quantifying the amount that Austinites reuse involves calculating tons of things Resource Recovery never picks up at the curb. "If the city is controlling the material and picking it up, we obviously have access to those numbers. But it's hard to count diversion unless you have the numbers," Gedert says. How could a city possibly quantify all the stuff that might have been thrown away, were it not for a successful transaction at Goodwill or on Craigslist or Freecycle or a neighborhood e-list?
To get answers, Gedert's department has hired the same consultant that did the residential trash study to calculate diversion rates for the whole city – and provide an estimated diversion from reuse, including the material processed by Goodwill, the ReStore, Recycled Reads, and Austin Creative Reuse, among others.
"The important part about our zero-waste goals is that something doesn't have to be handled by the city to count," Gedert says. "In fact, we would encourage the handling of items to be non-city-related to reduce cost. If it happens before it reaches the hands of the city's employees, and if we don't have to pick it up and take it to the landfill, that's a cost reduction."
Still, the city can nudge residents to reuse in other ways. It can institute policies that require it, such as Austin's ban on single-use carryout bags that took effect in March 2013. A follow-up report concluded that the rule had effectively cut down on the number of single-use bags that ended up in the trash, but that the sturdier reusable bags sold by local groceries were being thrown away too quickly. In October, the construction and demolition recycling ordinance will take effect. Builders of new structures will be required to find a home other than the landfill for construction waste; demolition waste will be phased in later.
The city has also funded the first two years of operations for the Austin Materials Marketplace, a matchmaking service for waste and entrepreneurs who can use it as a raw material. While the Marketplace doesn't have a physical space to store the materials – they're posted online – the city has funded the project's staff time and software expenses. Operated by Ecology Action of Texas and the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Marketplace has facilitated exchanges of roughly 60 tons of materials since its public launch in August 2014.
One transaction that AMM Program Manager Daniel Kietzer highlights is the processing by Granite Recyclers Austin of granite scraps from countertop fabrication shops into a granite tile product. "That's a real big win-win for folks on both sides of that transaction," he says. "Stone is, of course, very heavy and expensive to send to a landfill. But also the people that are taking that stone and making use of it can save a considerable amount of money – $200 to $300 per ton."
Austin Craigslist, Jan. 24: Giant, chunky old desktop that makes sounds like a jet engine sometimes. I don't really know anything about computers. You want this for parts? Let your kid tear it apart and rebuild it? ... Please unburden me of this machine and find some use for it. Hell, I'll even give it to you if you're real cool.
Even with laws on the books, and incentives to reuse items in business development, individual Austinites have to choose reuse over buying new. And often reusing something takes more effort. For instance, the University of Texas has a surplus property warehouse for computers, furniture, and lab equipment departments have purged. Other offices have the option to "shop" the warehouse when they need new supplies, though doing so requires flexibility – the warehouse might not have exactly what a staff member envisioned – and an investment of time, because the space is located off-campus and its inventory changes weekly.
"It's easier to stay at your desk on campus and order a new thing online with a click, rather than go out to the surplus warehouse," says Jim Walker, UT's director of sustainability. He says the variable in most people's decision-making about reuse is convenience: "A marriage of how much time you're willing to give something, with the ease of doing so. What we [at UT] can control on the infrastructure side is the ease: 'Here's a warehouse with a bunch of stuff in it. Here's Trash to Treasure on the West Mall.' But the other part is we've got to invest in changing people's attitudes – that the desk you got from surplus, that's now in its fourth office – that's cool! And that's worth your effort to go get it."
Of course, you can only reuse something if it's designed to last. Reuse advocates decry planned obsolescence and a "throwaway" mentality about goods. For instance, the construction of furniture with particle board, instead of solid wood, means the pieces don't last as long (the chemicals used in particle board also prevent most of those items from being recycled). And as electronics and computer technology evolves, such equipment becomes outdated more quickly.
These changes aren't consumers' fault, says Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment, a zero-waste watchdog group. TCE advocates for "extended producer responsibility" – akin to the sustainable product design that tops the "Highest and Best Use Hierarchy." The concept is that manufacturers are obliged to consider the impacts of the products they make throughout those products' life cycles. Considerations include sourcing materials sustainably, ensuring fair working conditions in factories, designing products so they can be repaired and recycled, and accepting the product back at the end of its life if it can't be recycled.
"The point of extended producer responsibility is to internalize costs that have been externalized by producers to this point," Dobbs says. "Our recycling and disposal in this country is done predominantly by the government, or by private contracts between households and the waste companies. How do we get the impact of this waste onto the balance sheet of the people making wasteful products, so that they make less-wasteful products?"
TCE successfully campaigned for legislation to require manufacturers to take back their products at the end of their useful life. A computer takeback initiative passed the Texas Legislature in 2007, and a similar rule for televisions was signed into law in 2011. Still, other products, from smartphones to bread machines, can be rendered unusable by a problem as small as a broken knob or a battery compartment that doesn't open. Dobbs points to the group iFixit, whose website publishes open-source repair manuals for electronics. The group's Right to Repair Manifesto reads, in part, "We have the right to devices that can be opened ... to repair documentation for everything ... to available, reasonably priced service parts." Consumers should join iFixit's efforts to pressure manufacturers to make products that can be repaired and used longer, Dobbs says.
"The system is specifically designed to create pollution, and the system is bigger than any of our individual efforts," he says. "The most important thing you can do is be an active citizen and join up with organized citizens to put pressure on business and government to make those changes, because that has a much bigger impact."