FINGER LAKES REUSE BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO GOODS — AND PEOPLE By Delaney Van Wey

In an old BOCES school building just outside downtown Ithaca, New York, you can find a little bit of everything. Dorm couches, about five copies of Titanic on VHS, MacBooks — you name it.

All of it is second hand, recycled or refurbished.

This is the home of Finger Lakes ReUse Center, an organization that is dedicated to keeping usable goods out of landfills and providing job training to those in need. Although they’ve only been in this location for a year, the organization opened for business in 2008 in their first location just outside of the city of Ithaca. Now, they are looking to expand again and help jump start more organizations like their own.

“Extending the lives of materials, and the skills that are involved in that, are critical for human survival, in a way,” said Diane Cohen, the group’s executive director. “We need to not know just how to mine and harvest virgin materials, we need to learn how to build things so that they can be taken care of, and maintained, and have a nice long life.”

Leah Ayers refurbishes a Dell computer in the eCenter. Photo by Delaney Van Wey

The United States generated 258 million tons of waste in 2014, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that, 34.6 percent was recycled, according to the agency.

Although recycling rates have increased over the years, the agency still recommended in its 2014 report on waste that the next step moving forward was to work towards using fewer new goods overall.

Tompkins County had that figured out in 1995 when it approved its 20-Year Solid Waste Management Plan, which included the creation of a reuse center. Ten years into the plan, the county had reduced waste by over 50 percent, according to a report, but Cohen saw first hand that there was still room to improve.

Cohen had been working for the county for eight years as the manager of a program salvaging building materials from houses set to be demolished. She said, though, that she constantly saw perfectly useable household items and personal belongings that she knew should have a second life.

“These materials were all here in the community,” Cohen said. “They’re all here in every community. We view them as material wealth.”

Photo by Delaney Van Wey

Compelled to take action, Cohen said she urged her supervisors to let her take on the role of creating a county reuse center, where these materials could be resold cheaply. With help from board members and community partners, Cohen opened the first location of the Finger Lakes ReUse Center on Triphammer Road in Ithaca in 2008 and was finally able to start collecting materials from people throughout the county.

In the first five years of the program, Finger Lakes ReUse made $1.7 million in merchandise sales, according to a report. Cohen said they are on track to make $1 million in the 2017 fiscal year alone.

This revenue from the center makes it 80 percent self-sufficient, but the other 20 percent must be raised, Cohen said. The fundraising goal for 2017 is $300,000, Cohen said. This comes in the form of donations and grants from the community, which she said has been extremely supportive.

In return, Finger Lakes ReUse supports the people of the county as part of a triple-bottom-line business model supporting the environment, their business and the surrounding community. This support comes in the form of the ReSET Technology Job Training Program that is run out of the eCenter, where ReUse handles computer refurbishment and low-cost computer maintenance.

ReSET, which is a free 10-week program, teaches low-income or unemployed community members about basic computer technology skills related to both hardware and software. Those who complete this training can apply for a competitive paid apprenticeship in the eCenter, like Lonnie Hinkle did over two years ago. He was hired by ReUse out of the apprenticeship and has been there ever since, despite other job offers.

“I come here to play, I don’t come here to work,” Hinkle said.

Lonnie Hinkle at work in his office. Photo by Delaney Van Wey.

Hinkle said he had been a physical laborer throughout his life, but a back injury in 2006 put him out of work. After years of struggling, someone pointed him to the ReSET program, which he said has shaped his life. Now, he teaches others the skills to be successful.

“That’s what I love most about my job, is somehow empowering another individual,” Hinkle said.

After spending time at the center, Hinkle said he has become more aware of the environment and his impact on it. Before he rarely recycled, but he said he now has more recycling than trash at his house.

He has also learned that you can recycle almost everything inside a computer, including the motherboards. Hinkle said ReUse recycles the motherboards through a third party, but they check to make sure the materials are not all sent to the developing world where child workers can be poisoned by the chemicals in the materials.

Photo by Delaney Van Wey

Hinkle said his hope for the future of the ReUse center is expansion. He would like to see the model replicated elsewhere, he said, and thinks ReUse could develop a training team to help others get started.

Cohen and other leaders at ReUse are already on the same page as Hinkle. While Cohen said they are interested in helping create and train new reuse centers, they already have a plan to expand their center located outside of downtown Ithaca on Elmira Road.

Robin Elliot, philanthropy coordinator for the center, said the ReUse team knew they would need more space even as they were moving into their new home in 2015. Even now, with space more than doubled from their Triphammer Road location, they have to turn down some large jobs, she said.

The center expansion is still in initial stages, but Elliot said it would involve building new floors onto the existing building. The first floor would become entirely retail space, moving offices onto the second floor.

There are also plans, Elliot said, to build apartments above that, which they would fill by partnering with other community organizations. Currently, they are in talks with Tompkins Community Action and Ithaca Housing Alliance. Elliot said they would most likely be apartments for disadvantage people or those recently released from prison, underscoring ReUse’s dedication to the community.

Nick Tabbel works to fix a CD player. Photo by Delaney Van Wey.

In keeping with their dedication to the environment, Elliot said they are going to make sure the new addition, as well as the surrounding grounds, is LEED certified. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification is the most widely accepted green building standard in the world. Although there are many requirements, including the possibility of tearing up the current parking lot, Elliot said it was worth it.

“It’s definitely the right thing to do and again a mission aligned for us,” Elliot said.

As for helping other people start reuse organizations, Cohen said they are interested in that, too. They already offer an online form that walks people through the necessary steps of starting a nonprofit, but Cohen said they have also talked with other counties that are interested.

This would magnify the impact of the ReUse Center, but for Cohen it has never been about that. She said she would be happy if she only ever helped one person, adding that her experiences with the program have already changed her for the better.

“If it’s one word, it’s transformation,” Cohen said. “I have been transformed through this job.”

Diane Cohen stands among what has transformed her: Finger Lakes ReUse. Photo by Delaney Van Wey
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