What happened to “Re-use”?


Free Solid Wood Bureau, Anyone?

Free Solid Wood Bureau, Anyone?

I spent all day Saturday cleaning up and hoeing out our basement. You’d think in a 1,200 sf home (not including the basement) we would be better about keeping only what we need, but items invariably end up in the basement…for years.

Case in point, the wine cooler fridgie that worked for about three months before we moved into this house. We thought it made sense to put it into the basement….7.5 years ago. Sigh.

Anyway, this is not a story about our pack-rat habits, but a tale of effort in a system that does not yet work well. It is a little bit of a gripe, but with the intent of defining at least some questions to be asked that could point us in the direction of system improvements.

First, let me say there is so much potential out there. We are all so much more aware of toxins and of re-use benefits. There are take-back laws on the books, especially in NY state for electronics and in a growing way in other commodity lines such as copier toner cartridges. There are electronics recyclers, and re-use centers such a Habitat ReStore that did not exist even 10 years ago, adding to the long-lived world of Salvation Army and Goodwill! There are social media-based trade sites and sell sites such as e-bay and Craig’s list and Freecycle, all of which can help us to re-use perfectly good items that are just no longer of use to us. Awesome.

But the systems are a mess and still highly dependent on time and effort by the user. We all know the key to recycling is to make it brain-dead easy. If you have a garbage can with a recycling can next to it, there is a good chance people will recycle. We have tried to ensure clean recycling by making little round tops to limit the intake to plastic and glass bottles and beverage cans….but even so, people throw in garbage. Even at Greenbuild, the International Green Building Expo, they have volunteers assigned at the waste stations to ensure these smart and green-leaning people can get it right.

Single stream has helped in many ways, allowing mix of plastic, glass paper, cardboard and tin to be divvied up at the recycling center. But there are no systems in the works to help us broadly re-use first what can be re-used, and then recycle.

I spent nearly two hours this morning with a carload of stuff. First dropping off at E-lot Recycling, where they thankfully still let residential customers drop off electronics of all types, and then hauling butt over to Goodwill to give them clothes, household goods and some sports items. The issue? E-lot, due to strict controls and third party certifications (see the e-steward certification homepage below), has to charge for nearly everything.

Home Page

It cost me $40 even after their gracious receipt of items at a lower per pound rate to properly recycle a dead flat screen TV, an old window A/C unit, video tapes, a coffee maker, some wires and a wine cooler. They asked me three times if I wanted to pay to recycle these things. What choice do I have – it’s totally wrong to put these into a landfill, and I’m not putting them back into my basement. Then, Goodwill can’t accept unwrapped toys or ski’s (yes, very old, but not ancient skies) or a boogie board in mint condition or a gator trailer (to attach a young kid bike to your bike in tandem). Sigh. What do I do with that stuff?

This is where the on-line swap sites can help. The caveat is the management of doing this. I have tried Freecycle in the past and posted something…and never followed up and never seemed to have any takers. That should be a sign that the item is land-fill bound…but wow, that hurts.

There is one existing system that works well – textiles in all conditions, even ripped undies, can go into the ubiquitous clothes drop boxes, quite anonymously. Include belts, shoes and stuffed animals, even purses. The companies sort these items and sell them on a commodity market in a couple of tiers of usefulness, starting with donation to clothing centers such as Goodwill, and ending with scrap cloth for rags and fiber in manufacturing using fiber material. Good all around – out of your life (and closet or boxes) and of use to some commodity market. That system seems to work because everything is funneled into the hands of companies that do the deliberate work of grading the materials and selling them as appropriate.

We are coming close to this with electronics, BUT the system is maybe leaning too much toward recycling, without incorporating hearty reuse grading in there. If stores such as e-lot could gain revenue from re-selling old but working items such as receivers, TVs, Copiers and Computers, then a grading system would support re-use and then recycling. The issue is that electronics are touchy and are so quickly out innovated that there is no real re-sale tier to capitalize on. So we need to trust in recycling. And we need, currently, to pay a fee for it. The only way this works long-term is if municipalities start levying big fines for TVs dumped on the street, which, in my neck of the woods, they don’t. And somehow, we need to keep wires and small e-items out of our landfills to reduce toxic exposure and to re-use valuable materials such as copper. We throw so much away.

Food waste is wonderfully simple, if people, even in cities, would be mandated and educated to compost. This would solve an incredibly huge energy and landfill issue.

As for the rest, there are so many separate endeavors that my head spins.

It is easy to donate housewares to Salvation Army and Goodwill. They take anything (pretty much) related to kitchen or decorations for the home. Clean it and get it there. That’s the burden. For big stuff like bed-frames as cabinets, call them to come get it.

For furniture and in-house items such as tubs and sinks and lighting fixtures, Habitat Restore is now on the market – they will also take excess building materials such as clean wallboard and extra flooring or roof shingles. Some “antique” and consignment shops will do similar – get the item to them and maybe even gain some cash for the effort.  But wow, the effort.

Then back to Freecycle and Craig’s list and the landfill. Oh, and the “leave it on the street with a FREE sign for a few days and see what happens”. This works for us pretty well.

My ideal? I am seeing the old-school transfer station in front of the landfill, and companies that can make money from sorting and re-selling items for re-use. Every bag is picked through and sent to the right process. Loads of job creation, a good materials market and excellent control for the use of landfills and for protection from toxins. Not sure what would make this occur, writ large. Would the potential earnings pay for all those jobs? In small towns, the fee per bag at the landfill is a good idea, transferring (pardon the pun) some of the cost of the process to the individual consumer.  Of course free drop off at the transfer station. It all hinges on significant investment in enforcement…and we are particularly bad at that!

How do YOU envision our re-use and recycling future?

Really curious,


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