RECYCLING: Recycled Treasures

At The RE Store, one man's used building-material trash is another man's treasure. And every time a customer buys recycled treasure from the store, it helps to save natural resources and energy while reducing pollution and the waste stream.

Through The RE Stores, located in Bellingham, Wash., and Seattle, still-usable, nonhazardous building materials are saved from landfills, collected and resold. It's a common-sense concept that began in response to concerns about large amounts of reusable building materials that were being thrown away.

To determine the volume of reusable building materials being discarded, Carl Weimer, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit environmental education organization, spent a week unloading trucks at the Bellingham incinerator.

“I was amazed and disgusted at the quantities of perfectly fine items that people threw out — toys, TVs, radios, tools, furniture, clothing, household goods, and lots and lots of building materials,” he says.

To save resources by diverting reusable building materials from premature disposal, Weimer opened the first RE Store in the area in 1993. Residents and contractors are provided with a free alternative to disposal and can purchase high-quality building materials for less than what they would pay for new materials.

According to Weimer, RE Stores sell: doors, windows, cabinets, lumber, hardware, flooring, lighting, plumbing, tiles, roofing, brick, marble, latex paint, office furniture and supplies. They also sell environmentally friendly items such as re-refined motor oil in bulk and compost bins. Also, the Bellingham store soon will begin providing computer recycling and reuse.

Part of the stores' successful approach is based on providing skilled salvage crews to remove materials from demolition/renovation sites, saving contractors time and money, and protecting the materials in the process. Stores offer contractors either cash payments or a tax write-off for the rights to salvage materials under their control and respond to contractors' requests to remove large quantities of materials in a safe manner that does not interfere with the contractors' schedules.

This strategy has allowed The RE Store to tap into multiple large renovation jobs throughout the Puget Sound region and to build partnerships with some of the state's largest contractors. In fact, Weimer says, many contractors now are using The RE Store's salvage services as a competitive edge in their bidding process.

The RE Store's full-time salvage crew, a fully licensed and bonded general contractor, works with contractors throughout western Washington to remove materials from construction and remodeling sites.

In 2001, The RE Store salvage staff began providing whole building hand “deconstruction” services. By deconstructing the entire building by hand, the store can substantially increase the amount of material that is reused and recycled, and in many cases, save property owners money over conventional demolition practices, Weimer says.

Additionally, The RE Store offers a pickup service for materials already removed. It accepts materials from the public as either a tax-deductible contribution or in trade for other materials. Residents and contractors also can drop off materials at the store.

According to Weimer, the stores have been more than successful. The initial 4,000-square-foot store operated with three employees and began with a $30,000 startup contract from the Whatcom County Waste Reduction and Recycling Program. By 1997, the thriving store moved to a larger 18,000-square-foot building in downtown Bellingham. By year's end, the store had recouped the moving costs (approximately $20,000 higher than normal expenses) and turned a profit. In June 1999, a second 8,500-square-foot store opened in north Seattle and grossed more than $36,000 in its first month of operation. Since then, this store has expanded to 11,000 square feet, and sales are steadily increasing.

Together, The RE Stores now fill more than 30,000 square feet and employ 32 people. RE Sources' 2001 budget is $1.4 million, with about $1.1 million generated from its stores.

Weimer says the organization plans to put the profits back into the expansion of existing stores and the opening of new stores to divert even more materials. He also hopes to spend some revenue helping other governments and individuals interested in starting similar operations. For example, The RE Store has assisted Environment Canada as a founding member of the North American Used Building Material Association.

Weimer says RE Sources hopes its concept spreads so that people everywhere have access to quality used building materials. Currently, hundreds of groups are redistributing used building materials across North America, including the Used Building Materials Association, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (, he says.

“Building materials continue to make up a high percentage of what is ending up in landfills,” Weimer adds. “Many of these materials are being disposed of — not because they are no longer functional — but because of our culture's lack of a conservation ethic regarding the frivolous use of natural resources. Operations like The RE Stores can certainly help to conserve these valuable resources while providing the public with high-quality, low-cost building materials and creating jobs.”