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Eugene Weekly : Lead Story : 9.8.11

BRING Evolution

Pioneering institution makes a bold shift

by Ted Taylor

July marked the end of an era for BRING Recycling. The nonprof it turned 40 this year and has gone through a major shift away from — recycling. What? Away from recycling? 

BRING pioneered the collecting, processing and promoting of recycling in Lane County long before it was fashionable or mandated by state law. Recycling is still part of its name and part of its mission, but as of July 1, Lane County Waste Management took over collecting and processing all glass, plastic, cardboard and cans at the Glenwood Central Receiving Station.

Bring your own bag

The new motto at BRING is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink,” which reflects the organization’s evolving mission and new business model with an emphasis on reuse and education. But some things haven’t changed. Junk still inspires the creative mind. The recent “Trashy Fashion Show” at BRING inspired EW’s cover photo Aug. 11 and Eugene metal sculptor Jud Turner (see story Aug. 4) is one of BRING’s biggest customers. His art, 95 percent from the BRING warehouse, graces our cover this week. 

Julie Daniel. Photo by Trask Bedortha
Ethan Rainwater. Photo by Ted Taylor

Recycling is important, says BRING Executive Director Julie Daniel, but back in 2000 she and her staff learned from the Department of Environmental Quality that the recycling rate between 1992 and 2000 had increased from 15 to nearly 50 percent. But then came the puzzling part. “You’d think that means less stuff was going in the landfill,” she says. “But oh no, almost exactly the same tonnage was going into the landfill. All that was happening is we were producing and consuming more and more and more goods. So we’re recycling more but it’s making absolutely no difference. Recycling is not a way to conserve resources; it is a way to manage resources we have already wasted.”

 So how do environmentally minded people get ahead of the waste stream? Daniel says it takes a new mindset and a new strategy. 

“The level of misinformation that people live with is stunning,” she says. “People get very upset about why they can’t recycle something, and yet the end of life (of a product) has the least impact on the environment. Whether you put it in the garbage or put in the landfill, it is a very small amount of the picture, but it is the piece that is concentrated on. It’s visible and it’s understandable. But environmental impact happens during extraction of the resource and manufacture of the item.” 

 Daniel says about 42 percent of greenhouse gases are produced during the extraction and manufacture of an item, but only about 2 percent at end of product lifecycle. Transportation of goods accounts for about 7 percent of greenhouse gases associated with those goods. So if you are thinking about buying an electric or hybrid car to save the planet, rethink: better to ride a bicycle, take the bus or carpool. Paper or plastic? Both bad choices. Bring your own bag.

“People should throw all their assumptions out the window,” she says. “Sometimes doing the big things is very easy, but it’s the hundreds of small things we do every day that really add up to environmental impact. You look at kids’ lunches, buying little juice packets, little boxes and packets — that has a huge environmental impact compared to buying in bulk.”

 

Planet Improvement Center 

Reuse and education are both sources of revenue for the nonprofit. Cash donations are welcome and even sought, but they are earmarked for capital improvements. BRING’s operating budget is about $1 million a year and most of that is generated from the sale of used building supplies and other materials at BRING’s three-acre Planet Improvement Center, which features hundreds of thousands of items from bolts to table saws to light fixtures, all sorted, labeled and tidy. Prices are half or less of retail. 

The new facilities are vastly bigger, cleaner and better organized than the old BRING mostly outdoor yard that operated for decades just east of I-5 on Seavey Loop.

Daniel says it was important to build a new facility that was more accessible than the old yard. “You couldn’t take children there; it was unsafe for older people, people in wheelchairs, people who are scared of rats, spiders and broken glass, limited parking. Our goal was to make a place where reuse was much more accessible to the population and make it so the whole community could get involved and not just people who were comfortable in junkyards.”

The Planet Improvement Center keeps getting better, and even the big open yard, dubbed “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” got a recent transformation by local landscape designer and builder Ethan Rainwater. He installed artistic paving, plants, seating and even a centerpiece sculpture made from old brass musical instruments welded together.

“BRING is right in line with my beliefs, using what you can find on site, using reused materials for landscape construction,” says Rainwater. “In developing the site here, it’s been a perfect partnership, and it’s been a fantastic place to work because everything is right here. You need a tool or materials for the job? You just walk out into the warehouse and find it.”

Rainwater says the 4,000 sq. ft. project was “the last big piece to BRING’s site plan, and it really ties it together. Everything that’s in the plaza came from the yard here. … People like the aesthetic of funky, reused stuff and things that tell a story, not just something that came factory made from a store. These pieces of urbanite (reused concrete) that are set into the plaza are actually the old floor of receiving here at BRING. You can see the cracks and the spray paint from their old life.”

 

The education component

One source of steady income for BRING is a contract with Lane County for waste management education, a component of Oregon’s Opportunity to Recycle Act of 1983 that first mandated curbside recycling. Later, the Oregon Recycling Act of 1991 added an educational component. BRING gets about $55,000 a year. 

“Some counties do it through county staff and some delegate it to the garbage haulers, and in Lane County it has always gone out as an RFP (request for proposals),” says Daniel. “And since BRING was doing it before it was required by law, BRING has won that contract ever since it was in existence.”

Daniel says BRING does free education in the schools throughout Lane County. “We see around 6,000 school children each year in classrooms and landfill tours — from Head Start right through high school. The contract basically pays the staffing costs but we heavily subsidize it to cover the overhead of managing a high-quality program. Could the county hire somebody full time for $55,000 to do this? Not even close.” 

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski was on the BRING board for 10 years, and when he started in 1988, the organization’s main focus was reducing waste and recycling. “Through BRING’s school-based education program at the time, recycling became a common household practice in Lane County,” he says. “Since I left BRING in 1998, the organization has matured into a core community partner promoting local sustainability. Many of us who were previously connected with BRING shared a similar vision as the current board and staff. We knew it would be important to look beyond just recycling.” 

What has the recession done to organizations that deal with used and recycled materials? The bad economy both helps and hurts, according to cross-section of workers EW queried at St. Vincent de Paul, NextStep Reycling and Reuse, and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. The consensus is that more people are looking to reuse and repurpose goods and materials, but donations of some materials are down. Contractors used to donate truckloads of leftover materials between jobs, but construction is down. It’s also now easier to sell used materials on Craigslist.

“The recession has made a difference,” says Daniel. “Waste fell enormously in the last couple of years, about 20 percent, and that is absolutely the result of people consuming less because they can’t afford it. The recession has been brilliant in terms of carbon reduction.” 

 

Working together

Several reuse organizations in the county compete with each other, but also offer support and mutual admiration. “We refer back and forth not only electronic stuff but other stuff as well,” says Lorraine Kerwood of NextStep Recycling, which specializes in electronics processing and reuse. Kerwood says BRING is “a fabulous program that fills a ton of different niches that are not getting paid attention to, like educating businesses about how to deal with their own waste through the Rethink program. Any business can call them up and they will tell you how to deal with your trash.” Kerwood is supportive of “all these organizations that are working to keep materials out of our landfill.”

In the end, says Daniel, being truly sustainable requires a shift in thinking. “As Americans what we are really looking for is a green substitute for behavior,” she says. “We ought to actually change our behavior, but we really don’t want to. We’d like for there to be a way that our behavior does not have an impact, and therein lies our problem. It is our behavior and how we think about things that has to change.”

Prozanski says that after 40 years, BRING “continues to encourage members of our community to seek out ways of living more sustainably by preventing waste and reusing our resources wisely. BRING has every reason to be proud of its legacy of making this a better, more environmentally aware community.”

 

 

 

The Big Home and Garden Tour

BRING’s third annual Home and Garden Tour is coming up from 10 am to 4 pm Sunday, Sept. 18, and is intended to “inspire people to rethink their use of resources, encourage the exchange of ideas, foster individual action and have fun in the process.” Proceeds benefit BRING’s education program.

The tour of 14 homes and gardens is co-hosted by EWEB and the city of Eugene. Photos of participating sites can be found at http://wkly.ws/13q and each site will have information about the tour. The sites include:

• A “creative conversion” home at 1441 McKinley St. in Eugene, showcasing what can be done on a small scale with found and reclaimed building materials. 

• An “eco-conscious remodel” at 1960 Grant St., featuring clay plaster and reclaimed doors, windows and flooring. The backyard includes a kitchen yurt for preparing food from the extensive organic garden.

• A “small home with big energy savings” at 870 W. 28th Ave., a remodel featuring solar electric and water-heating and ductless heat pump.

Sites are all close to each other and can be visited in any order. Tickets are $10 each, $18 for two, and can be purchased at any of the sites on the tour. A limited number of low-income tickets are available at the city’s Atrium Building across from the LTD downtown station. Bicycling, walking and carpooling are encouraged.