Advancing Reuse in Eugene

One look into a local dump can give a glimpse into the vast amount of materials that people discard daily. Yard and construction debris, old broken furniture and various household items are all piled into a large pit, waiting to be trucked to a landfill. While some of it is trash that belongs there, amid the trash are many items that have potential for a second life.

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” a simple concept that if properly adhered to could remove much of this waste from local dumps and landfills. The three R’s have become a common phrase as environmental concerns grow and people become more aware of how they can produce less waste. Recycling increasingly accessible with widespread curbside pick up for small household recycling and these efforts are working. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 facts on municipal waste shows, between 2000 and 2010, the total amount of municipal solid waste recycled rose from 69.5 million tons to 85.1 million tons. Cans, bottles, and boxes are easy, but larger items or those that are not obviously recyclable can be harder to deal with.

Fortunately, there is Reuse, and Eugene has an array of businesses that specialize in reusing just about any item. Large household and construction items can be donated to Bring Recycling Center, where community members can purchase supplies for personal construction projects. NextStep refurbishes old electronics to help make technology more accessible to the community. Old dirty mattresses can find a second life at St. Vincent de Paul where they are recycled into new mattresses or taken apart and the materials used in other projects. Even somebody’s dryer lint can have a second life and be found on the shelves at Eugene’s Materials Exchange Center for Community Arts (MECCA), whose mission is to take unwanted items that may be reused in creative endeavors.

MECCA's current storefront and warehouse located at 449 Willamette Street is now open 11am-6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 11am-9pm on Thursday, and 11am-5pm on Saturday.

MECCA’s current storefront and warehouse located at 449 Willamette Street is now open 11am-6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 11am-9pm on Thursday, and 11am-5pm on Saturday.

This last year, MECCA took in 13 tons of materials, up from about 10 tons last year. MECCA has had to expand its hours and is opening its warehouse for shopping to accommodate and circulate the immense amount of materials. When MECCA was first founded, there would not be nearly enough space to accept that much material. Founded in 2000, the original MECCA store was housed Network Charter School’s old downtown location; sharing the space with two Network Charter School classrooms. Though small at the time, MECCA was expanding rapidly and soon took over the entire space and had to relocate to its current location.

Mija Andrade, the current executive director, began working as a volunteer with MECCA seven years ago down in the basement. At that time, MECCA had to advertise their service as an eco-conscious way to dispose of unwanted items by soliciting businesses for their waste and unwanted items. “We’d actually go to businesses or call them up and say ‘Hey, we will take your production waste, or your samples… could we come and look at the things you throw away and see if we can actually reuse anything… We don’t do that anymore. We can’t handle what we get in,” Andrade said.

Anything from golf balls, bottle caps and even laundry lint may be found on the shelves at MECCA.

Aside from personal donations, MECCA still receives donations from local businesses. “Maybe a furniture company will have excess stuffing that they’re not using anymore… or they have leather scraps from furniture making or fabric scraps,” Andrade said. Many individuals and local businesses realize that this is a much better use for their old items than throwing them away. Eugene is unique in that it is able to support several different organizations that each specializes in reusing different types of materials.

Also housed in Eugene is a much larger reuse organization that receives materials from all over the world, St. Vincent de Paul.  While mainly known for its large retail thrift stores, executive director Terry McDonald has created various recycling programs that take in materials such as glass, Styrofoam and even mattresses.

“We set up a mattress rebuilding facility in 1990. Mattress rebuilding is just what it sounds like. You take an old dirty mattress, strip all of its soft material off of it, put new material on it and put that back out in the market place. We needed that because St. Vincent De Paul is also the charity organization and we needed mattresses to give away. We never had enough good used mattresses so by going to transfer sites and dumps and getting dirty used mattresses that are actually reusable because the springs are good… that gave us a very satisfactory product.” Terry McDonald

St. Vincent de Paul has a large network of transfer sites and dumps so they are able to bring in huge quantities of mattresses. However, many mattresses are unable to be rebuilt. The springs may be too worn or even mangled and rusted and thus unable to be turned into good used mattresses. The first instinct is to leave those in the dump, but instead of throwing them away, McDonald created a process to hand deconstruct the mattresses so the materials could be used in other industries. “Last year we processed (deconstructed) just about 170,000 mattresses… Those ones that are unable to be rebuilt are hand deconstructed.” The foam goes into carpet padding, cotton goes into the dashboard of cars and the steel goes back to the steel industry to be reused. Since it began in 2000, the mattress-recycling program has since become the largest mattress-recycling program in the United States. McDonald has been contracted by other organizations to help set up organizations throughout the country and is planning on setting up 10 more over the next few years.

When McDonald first began to recycle mattresses with St. Vincent de Paul, he had to create the market for stripped materials. “We had to create several of the markets for it. So, for example, there was no market for secondary, post-consumer cotton when we started. Now, the automotive industry is what buys it,” McDonald says. The steel from springs also proved difficult to market. However, McDonald is working on a process that will take spring steel and compress it into a small cube, which is much easier to sell back to steel companies.

A more unconventional use for old mattress springs that McDonald has seen, is fencing. “It’s cheaper than building a wooden fence. And actually, it’s quite attractive. If you take a spring and take all the covering off of it, you end up with this wire pattern… You can allow whatever vines or ivy grow up through it and create a solid fence.” McDonald co-operates with Bring Recycling who sells the used mattress springs so people can create unique alternative fences with used materials.

Eugene is unique in its community’s drive to create less waste. There are not many areas where there are numerous organizations that all specialize in reusing different materials. Eugene’s community gives everything a chance at a second life. Dirty old mattress, bags of drying machine lint and just about any other item imaginable has a potential to be recycled, reused, and kept out of the waste stream.

Fallen Trees to Kitchen Tables 

Seth San Filippo’s truck parked in front of Urban Lumber Company’s Springfield location carrying a freshly salvaged tree trunk.

Many organizations that reuse or recycle materials focus on consumer goods and how to keep those out of waste, but what about products from nature such as large dead or fallen trees? The Urban Lumber Company located in Springfield, Ore specializes in taking salvaged lumber from the Eugene-Springfield area and turning the lumber into custom pieces of furniture. Owner and founder, Seth San Filippo started Urban Lumber Co. in 2006 and opened their downtown showroom during the spring of 2012. “It just seemed to make sense to me as a woodworker… We use trees from the forest, but there was nothing being done with city trees… It just seemed like the most practical thing to do. To actually use the stuff that’s big and beautiful that’s not being used,” San Filippo said.

Tree trunks at Urban Lumber Company’s Springfield mill and lumber yard, waiting to be milled in their custom-built lumber mill.

He prefers to use large trees to create their products. He claims the largest tree they have ever milled was a six-foot wide and 15-foot tall walnut tree that had died in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. Even though Eugene is abundant with trees, San Filippo’s dedication to salvaging can cause difficulties when trying to find certain woods. “There’s certain woods, like oak or maple..  We can pretty much guarantee… but there’s other things like elm and sycamore that we like to get, but we just never know… I guess that’s kind of the beauty of salvaging stuff. Stuff keeps getting planted and it only comes out as it needs to over the years. It’s not like it all gets cut at once and then it’s gone.”

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