On April 12th, Open House New York hosted a tour of Big Reuse and Goodwill’s regional headquarters for the New York and New Jersey region. These two sprawling reuse centers stand just a block apart near the East River in Astoria, Queens. Goodwill NYNJ is part of a nationwide network of independent community-based nonprofit organizations, founded in 1902, that take in donations of clothing and household goods at thousands of thrift stores in communities across the country. The revenue generated through resale is used to support a host of social programs with an emphasis on helping persons with disabilities and other barriers achieve independence through employment. Big Reuse’s two locations, both within New York City, deal with construction and demolition waste, the millions of tons of doors, windows, beams, ceiling tiles, cabinets, floor coverings, fixtures, and other materials generated by the city’s voracious appetite for new construction.
Value: Both Goodwill and Big Reuse are mission-driven non-profit organizations. As such, they are highly incentivized to capture value in whatever material donations they receive; anything that goes to waste is a lost opportunity to generate much-needed funding. Goodwill, for instance, is always testing the market to find where supply and demand meet. As guides Martha Gotwals and Victoria Nikci explained, items that are donated to Goodwill’s many thrift stores around the region are listed at an initial “full” price determined by staff according to agency guidelines. If an item has have not sold within two or three weeks, depending on the store, the price is marked down by half for another week. Merchandise that still doesn’t sell after the markdown goes to Goodwill’s outlet store in Long Island City, where it is sold in bulk by the pound. Anything that does not sell there is then shipped to the central facility in Astoria, where it is baled and sold to salvagers. In total, Goodwill sells more than 280,000 pounds of textiles each week to salvagers—all of which would otherwise have wound up in a landfill. At Big Reuse, a color-coding system standardizes the rate at which prices are adjusted, based on when donations first come in, in order to keep materials moving through the warehouse as quickly as possible and generating funds that the organization uses to keep the lights on.
Flexibility: As consumer behavior shifts, so too do the types of goods that are donated to reuse centers and what they can take. “When I first got to Goodwill in California years ago,” Goodwill’s Mauricio Hernandez told the group, “there were fifteen people on staff repairing TVs, and thirty repairing toasters and blenders.” Now, with many electronics and appliances designed to break in shorter periods of time, repairs are no longer done. With new electronics laws, Goodwill is unable to accept tube TVs and can only take working flat screens. A large space in Goodwill’s warehouse is now dedicated to specialty goods sold online. At Big Reuse, director Justin Green noted that many of the New York City area’s old buildings were built using yellow pine harvested from the South. “That all used to be landfilled,” he explained, “but now people recognize that there’s value in that material.” As the demand for reclaimed lumber has gone up, Big Reuse has responded by working with companies that refurbish the thousands of water towers dotting New York City’s rooftops, taking in the weathered lumber and milling it at their Astoria location for resale.
Local Impact: Goodwill is perhaps best known across the country for its thrift stores, but the funds generated at stores go to support its primary mission of job training and educational programming for thousands of people every year. Goodwill’s Astoria location is located in the base of a tower that the organization developed in the 1960s to provide affordable housing for seniors. The base now contains classrooms, offices, and a cafeteria that support a wide range of social programs. Big Reuse also provides job-training services, and the net proceeds from its two reuse centers (they have a second location in Brooklyn, along the Gowanus Canal) go to support local environmental initiatives. Big Reuse is one of the Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) partners on the NYC Compost Project, and operates multiple, free drop-off locations for New Yorkers to deposit their food scraps for composting; Big Reuse then provides the resulting compost to community groups and municipal agencies free of charge.
Scale: Every year, Big Reuse’s two locations combined divert around 2,000 tons of construction and demolition debris from the waste stream. As impressive as this is, New York City construction and demolition crews generate around 19,000 tons of waste each day. Goodwill NYNJ, with more than forty stores across the New York City metro area and up the Hudson River Valley as far as Albany, diverts around 60,000 tons of material in a year While both organizations are rightly proud of the enormous quantity of material that they handle, they also acknowledge the fact that just a tiny percentage of reusable materials are diverted from landfills. Justin Green sees room for growth: “You could see how there could be sites like this in every neighborhood across the city.”
Motivation Gap: Given the way our waste system is set up, donating materials requires more effort than simply throwing them in the trash. Justin Green highlighted a particularly vexing issue in the way that construction and demolition waste is handled in the city: while manufacturers of things like ceiling tiles and carpeting are often willing to take those materials back and recycle them, there is no law compelling construction companies to separate these materials out and send them in for recycling. Indeed, even though construction and demolition waste composes more than half of the city’s waste stream, there is no law requiring recycling or reuse of any of these materials. Given that their job is often to clean out a space as quickly as possible, there is little incentive for demolition companies to worry about recycling, outside of any personal concern that they might have for the environment. While people who donate clothes and household goods to Goodwill are likely often motivated by empathy for the people that they know those goods will help, there is a sort of motivation gap when it comes to demolition waste, of which many citizens remain blissfully unaware.
Photos: David Mark Erickson for OHNY