e-mail us
Waste not, want not

NCR Staff
Eugene, Ore.

Terry McDonald frequently uses the word entrepreneurial to describe the endeavors of the organization he heads. Its operations include thriving factories and workshops turning out clothing, mattresses, dressers, bookshelves, glass ornaments and household appliances. A trucking fleet brings in raw materials and transports goods around the country. The entire operation employs about 250 people.

The purpose behind all this activity, however, is not to enrich shareholders, but to provide funds and supplies for low-income housing programs, services for the homeless, and all the traditional activities of a local council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. And in the bargain, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, Ore., provides jobs and daily diverts more than 40 tons of discarded products from the waste stream.

This St. Vincent de Paul Society has taken the notion of parish charity and involvement in easing social ills to new heights. The organization has sought a balance of social service, environmental stewardship and financial solvency through reclaiming and recycling the castoffs of what McDonald, executive director of the Lane County St. Vincent de Paul, calls our “fabulously wasteful” society. “The waste stream presents enormous opportunity,” McDonald told NCR. “We as a society cast off so much and mindlessly assume it’s going to find a home. And that’s not true. It just finds a holding tank at a dump. ... Sooner or later we’re going to have to do something with that stuff. Recycling is a long-term need, an absolute must. There will come a tomorrow, and we should be stewards of what we’re passing on.”

With its thrift shops throughout the country, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in the United States has long been involved in a kind of recycling. According to Eugene Smith, president of the national council of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Lane County council has just taken that idea “several steps further in recycling. They’ve been very inventive. By doing that, they have generated incredible resources that have been able to serve a lot of people.”

Shortly after McDonald become executive director in 1984 -- taking over after the death of his father, H.C. McDonald, who had headed the organization since 1955 -- he began looking into ways to expand the goods that could be donated to the needy and sold in the stores.

The organization’s first foray beyond simply taking in donations was to approach the Lane County solid waste department in 1985. The county gave St. Vincent de Paul permission to set up a trailer at a waste transfer site, and as people brought in goods bound for a landfill, they were diverted to the trailer and the reusables were pulled out for St. Vincent de Paul. The council continues this practice to this day -- only the trailers wait at transfer sites all over the Northwest.

McDonald also began visiting St. Vincent de Paul centers around the country and discovered that in major urban areas they receive a surplus of reusable goods. “There was a lot of product in their discarded stuff that was very serviceable and very good,” McDonald said. “So we started buying what they couldn’t use and hauling it into Eugene.”

Both sources have fed into the recycling operations the Lane County St. Vincent de Paul began in the late 1980s. Among the more cumbersome refuse that would come through transfer sites were mattresses -- stained too badly to use, but with internal parts often in prime condition. And mattresses were one of the more common items requested by St. Vincent de Paul’s parish conferences to donate to needy families in Lane County. “We’d have nothing to sell in stores, because they were always on requisition by parish conferences,” McDonald said. So they followed the example of other local councils -- among them, Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and Seattle -- and began a mattress factory to strip old mattresses to bare frames and rebuild them.

On the other hand, the thrift industry in general had been getting out of dealing with large household appliances by the early 1980s, McDonald said. Appliances like stoves and refrigerators were costly to fix, and it was difficult to get trained staff to do the work.

Yet appliances were another item heavily requisitioned by St. Vincent de Paul’s parish conferences -- and they needed to be serviced, guaranteed and in good shape. The Lane County St. Vincent de Paul decided to train its own technicians -- “and we’re going to pay them very well, so they stay,” McDonald said.

McDonald began by training himself to be an appliance technician in order to train a permanent staff for the appliance department. Today a staff of 16 recycles about 15 tons of appliances a day. The trucking fleet of 40 trailers brings in discarded appliances from transfer sites as far north as Tacoma, Wash., and as far south as San Francisco.

Rebuilt appliances sold in St. Vincent de Paul’s thrift stores come with a money-back guarantee and a full warranty. Since the technicians in the department have to go out to people’s homes to do the repairs, it’s an incentive to put out a high-quality product. “If you’re going to make the repairs, they have to be effective repairs that are going to last,” said Mark Belmer, the lead technician of the department.

Appliances that cannot be repaired are cannibalized for parts, and what is left over is sold for scrap.

Equipment used by the appliance department, and elsewhere in St. Vincent de Paul’s operations, is often created from cast-offs. The roll-off system for loading trailers, for example, is made from an old Navy truck, a decommissioned rail system and rebuilt dumpsters from the scrap yard. “It’s called creative scrounging,” McDonald said. “We do a lot of it.”

In addition, the appliance department is certified by the Environmental Protection Agency to remove, clean and recycle gases -- including Freon in domestic refrigerators, gas in discarded propane tanks and chemicals in fire extinguishers. The gases and chemicals are sold back to industry, and the metal of the containers is recycled.

The Freon is used in the refrigerators they repair, and is also sold to automotive repair shops, for use in cars with old air-conditioning systems. The production of Freon-12 has been banned since 1996, and the only legal way to obtain it is to buy it recycled. But new gas is being produced and sold illegally, McDonald said. “It comes to the United States through Tijuana,” he said.

McDonald acknowledges the ambiguity of dealing in ozone-depleting gas. There is a demand for the product, he said, and “it’s either going to come illicitly across the border, thereby driving a market to make more of it, or you’re going to find a way to recycle what’s there and decrease the demand for the illegal product while these Freon-12 systems are being eliminated from our society.”

“The good thing about being an idealist is that you get to see what the world could be and move toward it, but the way you make change is by participating in the real world,” he added.

The needs of parish conferences provided the impetus for another business the Lane County council began in the late 1980s. Dressers were needed for low-income families, but they were often donated to the organization in pieces. So St. Vincent de Paul arranged with local wood manufacturing companies to use raw chipboard that hadn’t passed factory specifications, material that would otherwise have been discarded. Using the imperfect side of the chipboard for the inside of the dresser, the woodshop created “the ugliest, heaviest dresser in the world,” McDonald said. “But it was serviceable.”

To pay for the program, some of the dressers were put in St. Vincent de Paul’s Lane County stores. “We found out there was actually an appetite for very cheap dressers, well-made,” he said.

Post-manufactured waste

Today, the woodshop builds dressers and bookshelves from a combination of new pine and the much lighter melamine -- imperfect laminated wood donated by cabinet manufacturers. About 30 to 40 percent of the wood in the dressers and bookshelves is post-manufactured waste, McDonald said. In addition to filling requisitions from parish conferences, the furniture is sold to St. Vincent de Paul Society thrift stores around the country.

Art Taylor has been the woodshop’s manager for 10 years. Taylor came through St. Vincent de Paul’s program for ex-offenders after he was convicted of manslaughter for an automobile accident in which he was driving intoxicated. He worked sorting clothes for St. Vincent de Paul in 1989 while he went through drug and alcohol treatment. Then he was asked to head the woodshop in 1990.

St. Vincent de Paul “had faith in me and my abilities, more so than I did in myself,” Taylor said. “I got nurtured in ways I can’t really explain.” Now, he said, he has the satisfaction of helping people in similar situations rebuild their lives as employees at the woodshop.

Many of the employees at one time received services through the homeless and vocational programs of the organization. According to McDonald, the jobs pay as well or better than comparable positions with for-profit businesses. All full-time employees have health, dental and life insurance paid for by Lane County St. Vincent de Paul. “I actively discourage part-time,” McDonald said. “I would prefer to have full-time employees so you have all the benefits.”

It has resulted in low employee turnover for the organization, he said. “The trick is, if people don’t leave and you want to hire more, then you have to create new jobs -- so you have to get new businesses.”

The idea for St. Vincent de Paul’s most recent venture into recycling had a more colorful genesis than targeting parish conference needs. About three years ago, McDonald was driving back from a meeting in Washington, when he passed what he describes as “a mountain” of green glass. A little investigation revealed that green glass has very little market with manufacturers in this country, and so it is difficult to profitably recycle it. The mountain was next to a glass factory that was unable to use it.

When McDonald approached that company, the results were discouraging. He was told that it would be enormously expensive and difficult to start up a glass factory, and in any case, there was no money in manufacturing small batches of glass products.

But a year later, at a meeting for recyclers in the Northwest, McDonald learned of a California company that was doing exactly what St. Vincent de Paul wanted to do -- small-scale glass recycling. “I was so mad,” he said. “I came back and said, ‘We just lost a year on this.’ ”

Nuns, Nike and the singer Jewel

St. Vincent de Paul set up Aurora Glass in Eugene in 1998. Its products -- such as vases, ornaments and paperweights -- are made from recycled glass of all kinds. They are sold not only in thrift stores, but also through regional catalogs and in gift shops throughout the Northwest. The company has snagged contracts to do logo products for clients as diverse as the Sisters of St. Joseph, Nike and the pop singer Jewel.

The expansion of St. Vincent de Paul’s recycling ventures coincided with an equally dramatic expansion in the 1990s of the social services it offered the community. Tackling the problem of homelessness has been a priority, and the organization’s programs include emergency shelter and services, a transitional housing program, permanent affordable housing and a home ownership program.

Aside from providing profits to pay for the social service programs, recycled products provide supplies. Mattresses for the homeless shelter come from the factory. The housing built by St. Vincent de Paul includes molding made by the woodshop from old waterbed frames, rebuilt appliances and architectural detail from Aurora Glass.

“The whole system feeds into itself -- it’s all a loop,” McDonald said. “It’s all based on a diversion of products that people don’t want, adding value to them and returning them back to service the community.”

Various efforts are underway to help similar nonprofit recycling operations set up around the country. “Eugene is kind of a radical, on-the-edge, tree-hugging, loony-tunes, environmental eco-freak place. It doesn’t work anywhere else, does it?” McDonald said. He believes it can: For example, the Lane County St. Vincent de Paul has worked with other councils in Cleveland and Eureka, Calif., to set up appliance and mattress programs.

St. Vincent de Paul has collaborated with the Springfield, Ore.-based Center for Watershed and Community Health to help local community development organizations operate their own reuse and recycle businesses. Their first collaboration, begun two years ago, involved providing technical assistance to nonprofit organizations, but that proved to be too time-consuming, said center director Bob Doppelt. The center and Lane County St. Vincent de Paul are now planning a jointly controlled organization that would set up its own nonprofit recycling businesses around the country. If possible, a local nonprofit organization could purchase the business when it became financially stable.

The Lane County St. Vincent de Paul has also been making moves to work with industry to prevent industry’s discarded products from going to landfills. In Eugene and Cleveland, the council arranged with Sears to pick up appliances that people turn in when they purchase new ones. About 60 percent of appliances turned in at Sears can be rebuilt, McDonald said -- “a staggeringly high rate. It would be really great for every community to have the same type of program we have rebuilding appliances.”

McDonald approached personnel at the national headquarters of Sears in Chicago, who asked him to come up with a plan to work with non-profit organizations nationwide to reclaim appliances and mattresses traded in at local Sears stores. Joel Greene, manager of environmental health and safety compliance and administration for Sears, said the project is “very early on in the process.”

4 million appliances

Greene said that Sears alone takes back around 4 million appliances a year. Whether resold, scrapped or dumped in a landfill, what happens to those appliances varies in each market. By working with St. Vincent de Paul, Sears may “come up with an approach that would ultimately lead to regional programs working with scrapping firms or recycling firms,” Greene said.

The International Sleep Products Association, based in Alexandria, Va., gave the Lane County council funds to research shredding mattresses for diversion from the waste stream. Shawn Conrad, the association’s vice president of government relations and issues management, said the group has been examining ways to make mattress disposal feasible. “The missing link was to find an organization to tackle it,” Conrad told NCR. “They would need experience, a track record of dealing with recycling programs. They would need the management background to do it, and most important the commitment to make it happen. When we looked at St. Vincent de Paul, it was apparent that they had all of it.”

As a result of this collaboration, St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County will be working with St. Vincent de Paul in Alameda County, Calif., beginning in July to establish a factory that will take mattresses that cannot be rebuilt and reduce them to their component parts for recycling. “It’s a 100 percent diversion program,” McDonald said.

Despite its work with a number of St. Vincent de Paul councils in the United States, McDonald said the Lane County council has its critics. He said there are those who have told him the organization has lost its sense of the St. Vincent de Paul mission -- a mission he said was summed up recently in a St. Vincent de Paul regional newsletter that said the society’s purpose was not to serve the poor, but to develop its members’ spirituality.

“I don’t fault those who say the focus of St. Vincent de Paul should be to help St. Vincent de Paul members to become better Catholics,” McDonald said. “I also don’t believe that’s all we should do.”

Smith, president of St. Vincent de Paul’s national council, told NCR that from what he can see, the Lane County council’s work “fits perfectly with the efforts of St. Vincent de Paul. We have always picked up used clothing, furniture and materials and made them available to people who are poor or needy.”

As executive director of the Seton Institute, based in Daly City, Calif., Smith worked with Lane County St. Vincent de Paul to ship mattresses and nightstands to a hospital run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Angola in Africa. The institute also uses Lane County’s trucking fleet to ship medical supplies for the Daughters of Charity.

While the scale of the Lane County council’s operations is unique, Smith said he believes more local councils will be following its lead. “There’s great opportunity to do two things -- gain resources we can use to help the poor and also help the environment,” he said. “It makes sense all the way around. It’s part of being good stewards.”

McDonald said he sees no contradiction between St. Vincent de Paul’s spiritual aspects and work in the world. “We [in the United States] have more tools to help people than any single place on earth,” he said. “We’re also living in a time when the disparity between the rich and poor in the world is moving more rapidly than at any other time, and at a time when resources and the environment are becoming a huge issue for us as a human race. It seems to me that either faith has a message or part in this discussion or it’s superfluous. Your faith must be in action.”

It doesn’t mean the Lane County council will stop working through the traditional parish conferences or holding weekly meetings and prayer sessions, McDonald said. “It just means you have other tools to work with on top of that. So why not use them?”

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000