The reuse movement takes on our disposable culture

A home for unwanted things
Holly Jorgenson's home is filled with things, plants and furniture, that others were giving or throwing away.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

A $3.00 rummage sale find is the source of Angie Timmons' favorite handbag.

"My sister in law actually found a really beautiful sequined almost disco style handbag," Timmons says.

Neil Seldman's reuse philosophy was shaped growing up in Brooklyn.

"One of my duties as a youth was bringing my father's and neighbors shirts to the shirt hospital where collars would be repaired and restored," Seldman says.

Tim Brownell says his reuse regimen is rooted in his mother's devotion to saving paper bags for school lunches.

New life for dying embers
A friend's wood stove has a new life in Jorgenson's house.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"She would put my lunch in a brown paper and tell me I had to keep bringing that brown paper bag home for two weeks," Brownell says.

A quilt making mother inspired Holly Jorgensen's commitment to reuse.

"Bits of this, bits of that, you wear out the knees in your pants, you cut up the pants and use the rest to make quilts," Jorgensen says.

The four have all found gainful employment or personal satisfaction from their devotion to reuse.

The volume of stuff discarded by Hennepin County residents and businesses is staggering. One and a half million tons of solid waste a year. A mountain of that stuff - clothing, building materials, furniture - is reusable. Or as Angie Timmons, who promotes reuse for Hennepin County describes it, enough reusable stuff to fill a line of shopping carts from Minneapolis to Milwaukee.

"Thirty two million pounds of usable stuff is thrown away in Hennepin County every year," she says.

Unwanted fern
Jorgenson is not a pack rat but revels in finding items large and small that can find a place in her home.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Neil Seldman sees the picture on the national scale as the president of the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Local Self Reliance. Take building materials. The expense of discarding millions of tons of building materials from construction and demolition sites has prompted some states to take action, Seldman says.

"The cost of disposing of these items is exorbitant and getting higher and in some states such as the state of Massachusetts it's been banned," he says.

The result is a growth in businesses that salvage and sell building materials for reuse.

According to Seldman, there are more than 300 businesses nationwide involved in industrial scale reuse and they have their own business organization called REDO.

Holly Jorgensen's claim to reuse fame is obvious during a visit to her south suburban Twin Cities home.

"I don't know where this came from. I'm sure it has a story. It's an old copper and glass tray, but I found it on the curb, somebody didn't want," she says.

A birdfeeder, rescued from certain destruction.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Holly Jorgensen is not a packrat. The Hennepin county librarian's home is neat as a pin. Her philosophy is to live lightly on the earth. Upstairs and downstairs her house is furnished and in some cases rebuilt with other peoples cast off items.

"One of the neighbors was tearing down a cedar log home and gave me the scraps so these walls here, these cedar log walls, I built."

Early on Jorgensen was an avid curb side shopper.

Curb side shopping, salvaging, garbage picking, call it what you will, is legal in many Minnesota municipalities. In a fair number of communities stuff on the boulevard or at the curb is fair game, except for recyclables.

One day, Jorgensen says, our society's throwaway mentality got to her. Following her intuition she stopped on her way home from work to examine a curb side pile of what someone put out for trash. There in one of the boxes was a brand new childrens' snowsuit with the price tag still attached.

"And it kind of broke my heart. Because I know how many children...around the country don't have anything to wear...Now why someone wouldn't give that to Goodwill, there are any number of organizations that will come to your house to pick them up. It does sadden me," she says.

Neil Seldman
Neil Seldman is president of the Washington, D. C.-based Institute for Local Self Reliance
Contributed photo

Jorgensen does most of her reuse shopping these days at church rummage sales.

For other reusers the Internet is becoming their best friend. Free Market is one of the biggest Web sites for Twin Cities reusers. Operated by Twin Cities based Eureka, Free Market is a non-profit solid waste management company. Visitors list what they have or what they want. But there are some rules. No live animals, firearms or child car seats.

Eureka's Tim Brownell, whose mother had the lunch bag fixation, says all kinds of items appear on the list. Once, someone offered a house for free.

"The person who took it had to move it but they got a free house on the FreeMarket," he says.

Businesses use the same model. Suzy Mellem, the materials exchange coordinator for the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, says 2500 companies use the University of Minnesota's materials exchange site.

"A lot of packing materials, office furniture, pallets, 55-gallon drums," she says.

The materials exchange program for business is funded by a state grant. The biggest item exchanged?

"Once we had a 30-foot long bridge exchanged," she says.

Eureka's Tim Brownell says companies that make new stuff, everything from computers to carpets, are redesigning products with an eye to how they can be reused or recycled. For many the driving forces are cutting costs and making money and in some cases he says conservation of the planet's natural resources.

"We're going to have become much more efficient and much more conscious about how we use them and how we sustain them," he says.

Back to Hennepin County for a moment. The county designated next week "choose to reuse" week. Hennepin County's Web page lists dozens of ways to donate or to find reusable items. Need paint? The county collects more than 150,000 gallons a year. It offer what's reusable for free at two county collection sites.

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