by Nancy St. Clair
- USA -
“Going green is not going to transform our planet unless everyone can embrace the movement on their own terms and scale… If we don’t embrace reducing and reusing, the green movement cannot make a real impact. Recycling alone isn’t enough to save us.” - Jessica Mosby
Long ago, when I was young, I regarded the sight of discarded roofing, lumber and cars rotting in fields as junk. Now I see these materials in an entirely different light and ask myself: Can we afford to throw things away?
Before 2004, I anticipated a growing environmental/economic crisis, so I relocated to the Methow Valley in central Washington State where I knew I could grow my own food and participate in a vibrant community. Okanogan County is the largest in Washington State, but sparsely populated. Surrounded by a National Park, a National Forest and State Natural Resources lands, the valley is a scenic place to call home, so it’s no wonder that wealthy families are retiring or building showcase second homes here. But from 2005-2007, 21% of the county’s residents lived in poverty and 41% of families with a female householder and no husband present had incomes below the poverty level. As in other tourist areas, local workforce wages remain low in relation to the cost of living. With high median home prices, most working class families find affordable housing scarce.
In 2005, I purchased a small house built in the 1930s. As it underwent energy-efficiency upgrades, I was dismayed at the waste produced in my remodel and asked my carpenter not to throw so much away in my dumpster. Little did I know then that just 12 miles down the road, another remodeling project was underway where a retired businesswoman, carpenter, and electrical journeyman were discussing the patterns of waste they had recently observed in the Valley’s building sector.
The businesswoman, Mary Thompson, recalls, “we decided to create an alternative to burning and dumping useable materials,” - the common rural means for construction site waste disposal. “Methow Resource Recovery, usually referred to as MRR (pronounced myrrh), is a group of people who gathered together in May 2006. We share a strong awareness of how our community, our economy and our environment are interrelated with one another.”Modeled after successful efforts in the Puget Sound area and in Oregon, MRR opened a temporary sales center and started collecting, storing, and reselling donated materials. According to Mary, in the beginning, “MRR had no money, no inventory and no place to locate.” Two months later, they became an example of what community support can accomplish. Businessmen donated the use of land for the summer and Sustainable Methow, a local non-profit, offered to serve as the start-up umbrella organization. After securing a small loan, MRR began recruiting volunteers and board members, builders and homeowners started setting aside materials for reuse and Mary says people needing materials for yard and home projects “began to look to the Center for what they might use.” That first summer, she says, was a “blooming success.”
I met Mary in a Buddhist meditation group. After she enthusiastically described this new project, I immediately volunteered. I vividly recall driving to MRR’s center for the first time, then headquartered in a Korean War-vintage M.A.S.H. tent, stiflingly dusty and dank in the summer heat. At the end of the 2006 season, wind demolished the tent, rendering it hazardous to dismantle. MRR was forced to relocate and, fortunately, the Town of Twisp leased it some land where it stored its inventory in a portable container for the winter.
MRR remains on leased land today, but looks very different. Hard-working volunteers erected a 40' x 20' heavy-duty fabric structure to house indoor goods. We also continue building outside storage units for doors and windows.
Salvaged from construction jobs, business overstock, remodels, burn piles, and in some cases from people emptying out their garages, both contractors and the public have increased donations, providing MRR with its inventory. Metal roofing, lumber, electrical materials, light fixtures, sinks, tubs, toilets, kitchen cabinets, bookcases, doors, windows, landscaping items, bricks, tile, carpet, floor covering, and even remnants that can be recreated as art are sold at incredibly affordable prices - generally 30-40% of retail. MRR’s sales keep growing as customers now come from as far away as 90 miles, representing a wide socioeconomic cross-section of the county.
I’ll never forget one woman who stuffed her green hatchback full with lumber, insulation, and whatever else she found, then recruited a strong onlooker to help her tie furniture and kitchen cabinets to the roof. She stared at the car, hands clasped, a look of delight on her face.
Before MRR started, the founders decided to use the organization’s profits for community benefit, and donate all profits back to Valley non-profits. In 2006, MRR was able to donate just US$300, but by the next year, the figure jumped to $2,000. At the end of 2008, MRR donated $5,000 to the local food bank and $3,000 to the local recycling effort. As current board member Marcy Stamper puts it, “MRR feels an obligation to keep resources circulating within the community.”A major part of MRR’s mission is to raise public awareness. Besides public presentations, MRR provides community education by offering simple remodeling solutions and building samples from reused materials, such as a mobile chicken coop and a greenhouse. Art made from rescued objects has been displayed in a local art gallery, a home tour, and at the sales yard.
This year MRR finally created a part-time job and hired a sales manager. This frees the Board to work on new projects, such as implementing the dream of a house-repair program for those in need. Now the site can stay open for two days, with the goal of eventually matching the Recycling Center’s and Dump/Transfer Station’s schedules. Since all three groups operate in the same vicinity, their purpose and function can easily be coordinated for a minimal waste process - recover/reuse/recycle/then dump.
In a larger context, this type of project is a step toward creating what Rob Hopkins, author of The Transition Handbook: from Oil Dependence to Local Resilience, calls a “resilient, locally networked future economy.” Rather than waiting for someone else to provide solutions, he says “it falls to those at the more local level to start considering their own responses and solutions.” He sees opportunity in the current economic downturn. “Can we help build a new economics that has equity, environmental sustainability and human well being as its core objectives?”
It looks like MRR is already on the right track. The organization is debt-free, self-supporting, and has created a cycle where everyone wins: The donor receives a tax deduction and the knowledge that s/he is not being wasteful; the landfill is spared tons of waste; people have an economic alternative to purchasing new materials; the money generated in sales is turned back to the community; and the demand upon the Earth’s resources are diminished. Plus MRR’s volunteers feel good about helping their communities. I liked it so much that I’ve stayed on to participate in workparties, sales, and now as a Boardmember. I’m also in the process of creating MRR’s new website.
Communities can take more control over the future if they start moving now. Increasing numbers of people are homeless or in economic distress. We all need to eat, be housed, and be warm. Communities can start preparing for change and becoming self-sufficient – all it takes is a small active group, putting local needs first and planning a project carefully to capture imagination, energize others and spawn innovations. I urge others all over the world to join the many efforts underway to transform our planet. Reducing, reusing and recycling can be a way to get action started that involves an entire community.
Remember the saying, “think globally, act locally?” It’s never been more salient - the collective work of people worldwide truly has the potential to create great change.
Nancy's article is part of our focus on Sustainability & Responsible Stewardship. - Ed.
About the Author
Nancy St. Clair owns a web design business that helps small business startups and non-profits succeed. She received a broad liberal education at the University of California, Berkeley, and Syracuse University. Later, with three daughters, she completed a Masters at Syracuse’s School of Information Studies in an innovative program geared to prepare professionals for the Information Age.
Nancy now lives in the North Cascades Mountains in Washington and is active in her community. She is passionate about photography, writing, gardening and hiking, and practices Zen Buddhism.