Inventory in Abandoned School Becomes Others’ Treasures

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

January 3, 2022

6 Min Read

After a tornado hit an old school building in Springfield, Mass. several years ago, the city replaced the blown-off roof and sold the property “as is” to Home City Development, Inc. (HCDI), a nonprofit that builds affordable housing for low- and middle-income people.  HCDI, who is transforming what was known as Elias Brookings school into 42 rental apartments, saw the property as a find.

This historic building, where children had come to learn since 1926, was a solid brick and steel structure; overall it withstood the extreme weather event well. But Peter Serafino, director of Real Estate Development for HCDI, soon found himself in a unique situation, requiring him and his team to take on a huge, unanticipated task before they could begin work.

The school was abruptly shuttered after the tornado. It was as if it were frozen in time, with all its contents still in place.

“We found books, paper, TV monitors, audio and video equipment, desks, chairs, paints, yarn, cafeteria equipment … Basically, this four-story, 60,000-square-foot building was chock-full of everything you would need to run a K-5 school. And dealing with it all became our challenge,” Serafino says.

HCDI had to find a cost-effective, environmentally responsible way to clean out these abandoned, but perfectly functional materials before a contractor could begin the interior demolition in preparation for reuse. The goal—diverting as much as they could from landfill and seeing it put to use—would take time and planning. And it would entail making a lot of connections in the community.

Serafino would need to find the right takers and determine how to organize the enormous inventory and stage items for pickup, among tasks.

“We had to really use our heads to figure out how to deal with this stuff cost effectively.  We started telling people about our dilemma who are environmentally conscious and have experience managing waste and recyclables. Eventually we got to the right people who were willing to collaborate and share their knowledge. That was key,” Serafino says.

The Old Stone Mill Center in North Adams, Mass. became one of HCDI’s reuse partners. The charity organization collects, stores, and sometimes repairs surplus materials for reuse and redistributes them, mostly for free.

“They took what they could use and helped me make connections to organizations who could use what they couldn’t,” Serafino says.

Serafino also reached out to the Center for EcoTechnology (CET), a nonprofit that runs a recycling assistance program, RecyclingWorks, for Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. CET took some materials for its store, EcoBuilding Bargains, and connected Serafino to other nearby reuse outlets, like Westfield Habitat for Humanity ReStore. CET helped the developer find other players to assist with logistics to properly manage and move some of what remained.

Getting the materials ready for their next stop was a job in and of itself. HCDI recruited Roca, a Massachusetts-based organization that works with youth who’ve entered the criminal justice system, training and placing them in jobs. The Roca team helped uninstall doors and disassemble folding chairs, among inventory, and stage them for pickup.

A local electronics recycling company took computers, mounts, and cables at no charge; though HCDI had to pay for them to take the old cathode ray tube TV monitors.  

Scrap metal prices were low at the time, so there were no takers for this material, and the books proved hard to move, but much of what was left went quicky once Serafino and folks like Old Stone Mill Center and CET got the word out.

One big catalyst was a series of posts on social media. That’s when the floodgates opened.

“A cheesemaker drove 75 miles to disassemble and take a walk-in cooler, sinks, and related equipment. A local rescue mission came and got desks and chairs. A school principal drove two hours from Boston for folding cafeteria tables. In fact, dozens of educators came; and they were thrilled to walk out with what they would have paid for out of pocket for their schools,” Serafino says.

Every time he brought a contractor through the building, he’d ask, “Do you have kids at home? Take a box of paper,” and he moved more.

In the end HCDI gave away about seven tons for reuse and 23 tons for recycling, leaving just over 24 tons destined for landfill. Serafino estimates that the $60,000 spent to get the building cleaned out would have been double if he had to take the materials apart and transport them himself, whether for recycling, reuse, or disposal, with the bulk likely left at the latter destination.

For Old Stone Mill Center, working with HCDI meant being able to help several organizations, including further supporting an ongoing cause special to the operation: sending needed goods to the village of Bikie in The Congo Republic.  The village just built a new school, and the center redistributed microscopes, paper, art supplies, notebooks, and writing materials it collected from HCDI. 

“Bikie is in a very rural place in The Congo [with limited resources]. The villagers made the bricks themselves for the building. Now there are four grades with as many as 60 students per class. This will be the first time children there will be able to learn to read and write. We are grateful for the materials from the school that we were able to send,” says Leni Fried, Old Stone Mill Center co-owner.

CET has a somewhat different approach to materials recovery than Fried’s operation. Its role is to know recycling and reuse infrastructure on a statewide level, and to connect building owners, developers, and builders to outlets for their would-be-waste.

Speaking of the value in these services, Lorenzo Macaluso, director of Client Services Center for CET says, “Each reuse and many recycling outlets specialize in types of materials they take, and for a builder or contractor to have to do an analysis of their inventory, figure out which outlet can take what, then deal with logistics for the handoff is more time than they can or want to put into it. So having us assist with these tasks takes a lot off their plates.”

Pointing to HCDI he says that in this time of rising disposal costs and the impact of climate change becoming clearer, decommissioning projects like Elias Brookings are becoming more vital. Here, Macaluso says, a developer salvaged tons of good building materials and supplies that it would otherwise landfill, saving money, reducing its carbon footprint, and helping recipients of the materials they salvage do the same.

What did HCDI learn through this first-time materials recovery endeavor?

“We discovered when you decide you want to be responsible in managing waste there are resources to help you, and you need to reach out and find them. And you need to stay at it. It would have been easy to say we budgeted $100,000 for disposal and let that be the end of it,” Serafino says.

“But landfilling is not how we want to proceed.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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