What I Have Learned from Running a Reuse Center

By Matthew St. Onge

For the past 22 years, I have been the executive director of the Reuse Center at Boston Building Resources. We accept donations of used building materials—such as kitchen cabinet sets, windows, doors, and hardware—that may be left over from a renovation or surplus stock. We make these materials available to low- and moderate-income homeowners at affordable prices. An international reuse conference called ReuseConex was just held earlier this month in the Boston area, and my participation in the conference as a planning committee member and a panelist led me to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned about the reuse business over the years.

Materials from a dismantled movie set were donated to the Reuse Center at BBR.

Materials from a dismantled movie set were donated to the Reuse Center at BBR.

Homeowners and business donors bring contractors to the party.

When seeking donations, we quickly learned that individual homeowners and business owners were eager to give us their used and surplus materials. They were very enthusiastic about the possibility of their unneeded materials being useful to someone else. Contractors were somewhat reluctant at first, due to a perceived added cost of taking the time to carefully dismantle materials (like a cabinet set, for example) rather than continue with the traditional “crunch and dump.” The federal tax credit for donations to a charity helped offset any added expense, and contractors quickly learned that becoming part of the reuse movement is good for business. Potential customers are impressed with the idea of finding a second life for their materials, especially when these materials would help someone in need.

The quality of donated materials is impressively high.

In 1994, when the Reuse Center was started in two storage trailers, two of our earliest donations were a brand new birch cabinet set with a wholesale value of $15,000 and an amazing variety of new hardware from a distributor that was closing their doors—a victim of the early big-box era. These donations set the standard and demonstrated to our fledgling customer base that we could provide great materials at steeply discounted prices. To this day, I am amazed at the quality of the materials donated to us.

Operating a reuse center is a challenging business.

It takes a lot of effort to bring tons of used materials through our doors each year, process them, and find them new homes. We need able-bodied people to drive our truck and collect materials, which are often heavy and cumbersome; people to clean, assemble, disassemble, and research prices; salespeople to serve customers; and supporting functions like scheduling, communications, and human resources. The Reuse Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, but we operate like a small business, and, like any business, we experience our share of turnover and headaches. However, we enjoy a diverse staff and customer base, so we have engendered a community spirit that is rare to experience these days.

Customers may try to keep our organization their little secret.

Word of mouth is the most effective means of outreach for any organization, and ours is no exception. But I have been told on more than one occasion by customers that they choose not to share the secret of our program with others for fear that there will be fewer great products available to them! Reuse Center customers suffer from, and thrive upon, the thrill of hunting for one-of-a-kind items, which can lead to euphoria or frustration.

Customers’ ingenuity and initiative are truly admirable.

I am inspired by our customers: they are motivated to do a lot with a little, and they have a high level of creative thinking to make it happen. One customer mixed together gallons of paint that were close in color to create one uniform color for use throughout her apartment. She also trimmed down narrow doors to make closet shelves. Another long-term customer recounted her experience installing her own kitchen cabinet set many years ago, saying, “It’s my house, so I don’t mind taking chances on it. If it’s not perfect, I can always try again until it is.”

Never become complacent.

The world is always changing, and we need to change with it. We have arrived at a formula that works for us, but, as the Grateful Dead remind us in Uncle John’s Band, “When life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door.”

The ReuseConex conference was sponsored by the Reuse Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

See also "ReuseConex Recap" on the Trash to Treasure blog by Charlie Pioli.