Municipal Waste and the Benefits of Re-Use

What's going on in Baltimore shows how cities can profit both economically and socially from giving reusable materials a second life.
September 26, 2017
The Second Chance store in Baltimore deconstructs buildings, salvages materials and sells them. (FlickrCC/A.Currell)
By Neil Seldman  |  Contributor
Co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

When it comes to municipal solid waste, it wasn't that long ago that cities focused almost entirely on disposal. Only in the last 25 years or so have they begun to embrace recycling and materials recovery. The new strategy was spawned largely because of environmental concerns, but cities quickly learned that, once separated from the waste stream, used products and materials can form the basis for significant economic efforts -- efforts that benefit some of their most disadvantaged residents.

Cities have found that recycling creates 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration and that recycling levels of 50 to 70 percent are achievable. At least six major cities already exceed the 70 percent level.

Re-use has an even higher cost-benefit ratio as finished products and materials, including reusable construction materials, fixtures such as cabinets and toilets, and scrapped electronics are worth more than raw materials such as recycled glass and plastics. A number of cities now have increasingly robust re-use sectors. Sometimes simply mandating the separation of materials is sufficient to attract new businesses; in some cases cities finance new enterprises.

In Baltimore, three pioneering enterprises focus on reusable materials: The Loading Dock, a building-materials store that redistributes donations from contractors to low-income organizations; Humanim, a nonprofit enterprise that trains disadvantaged workers in deconstructing city-owned public housing; and Second Chance, which deconstructs buildings, salvages materials and sells them from its 250,000-square-foot retail space.

Employees of Second Chance -- veterans, school dropouts and individuals returning from incarceration who are recruited from the city's welfare rolls -- are paid a living wage and offered health insurance. Employment has grown from six workers in 2003 to 165 this year. The city gave Second Chance access to warehouse space and the right to cherry-pick materials from the deconstruction of public buildings.

At least two organizations want access to Baltimore's electronic scrap, the used computers, TVs and other devices that make up so much of the waste stream. One for-profit national company wants to replicate its joint venture with Mellwood, a highly successful social-service nonprofit employing ability-challenged citizens in nearby Prince George's County.

The St. Vincent De Paul Society, a Catholic social-service charity, wants to partner with a nonprofit social-service agency in Baltimore as part of its foundation-supported program that has already created 10 businesses, with more than 100 jobs and $10 million in gross revenue, up and down the East Coast. Given its location, Baltimore is of strategic importance to the organization's transportation of products for repair and resale. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that these entities could create another 500 good jobs in Baltimore within two years of an active recruitment program.

Baltimore is by no means the only city benefitting from the spread of re-use enterprises. The ReUse People of America, a San Diego nonprofit started 20 years ago, currently employs 500 workers in 16 joint ventures with private companies and nonprofits in urban and rural areas. And the Eugene, Ore., chapter of St. Vincent De Paul has created 700 jobs in its region. Even during the recession that began in late 2007, the nonprofit hired 100 workers and raised wages, which now average $14 an hour plus health benefits.

Sometimes the economic benefits of re-use are indirect. RecycleForce in Indianapolis reports that previously incarcerated e-scrap employees have a 26 percent recidivism rate, compared to 76 percent for the city as a whole.

It's hard to come up with a better illustration of how the economic activity generated by robust re-use operations can also provide significant social benefits for a community. As Mark Foster, founder of Second Chance, puts it, these operations do more than keep valuable materials out of landfills and put them to new uses. "They give people a second chance at success."