Suggest a Different Approach to Recovering Valuable Materials
By Maximo DeCastro Blake, Orange Environment
Maximo DeCastro Blake is currently a staff member of Orange Environment, Inc. He is past Board Member. He is also a Consultant to the Warwick Valley Community Center. Owner of Maximum Solutions, Inc, Blake has a long career in construction, deconstruction and recycling and recovery. He spent 30 years in New York City doing exactly the kind of social/environmental projects he writes about here with government and private funding. Micro-enterprises created by his work have employed and trained hundreds of former gang members. Blake was a former Assistant Dean of Students at Livingston College of Rutgers University and has taught alternative waste management at Ramapo College of New Jersey and solar power installation at OCCC.
For many years (1965-1997) I ran organizations that had charge of keeping hundreds of at-risk young men (ages 16-25 years) out of the court system. Our strategy was to get these young men employed and/or in stipend training 10 to 12 hours a day – six days a week to minimize the time they had to find trouble and to provide for their short term and longer term economic needs. This was no small task as most of these young men lacked knowledge and experience of legitimate employment and were constantly being lured by fast money and/or excitement/notoriety opportunities of drug sales, burglary and street crime. To compete with the thug life we were always looking for labor-intensive projects where large numbers of young men could be both supervised and earn an honest day’s pay. Many of these projects included recycling.
A typical project would be the emptying of a commercial building for reuse by a new owner or tenant or prior to demolition. While a typical contractor would dump the contents of the building and send it to a landfill, we would strip the property of any and all reusable or recyclable items and building components (doors, trim, cabinets, etc.) and use garbage containers only for completely worthless items. The desks chairs, partitions, light fixtures, stock room supplies, etc. would all be sold directly from the property or carted to our warehouse for repair, display and sale. Any bulk used paper, cloth, cardboard, metals, etc., would go to recyclers. We did this by finding buyers through the yellow pages. If we had had the Internet we would have been much more successful. In fact, had the Internet existed when we were performing dozens of recycling projects, we would probably still be operating today.
Ironically but importantly, sale of items removed from commercial buildings was directly related to the experience of many of the young men under our supervision. The difference was that we had the permission of the owners and authorities to perform the removals. The young men were also impressed by the higher sale prices we were able to get since we were not selling “hot” items.
One of the largest of these projects was the 1992 empting of the Pan Am building above Grand Central Station in Manhattan in preparation for its new owners, Met Life Insurance Company. This was a large project as this office tower had been the world’s largest office building when it opened in 1963. Pan Am’s closure was so sudden that their headquarters offices appeared as if the staff was just out to lunch and would soon return. The sweaters were still on the back of the office chairs, the high heels were tucked under the desks. Official papers were still on the desks. Food was on the trays in the cafeteria.
Met Life gave us three weeks to empty the building. This was problematic because the building is a logistical nightmare due to its traffic clogged location and small freight elevators. While daunting it gave us the opportunity to put nearly one hundred young men to work. These workers were organized into a day and a night crew of fifty men each. Two, six worker unloading crews from each shift would be located on the Brooklyn piers where we had secured three acres of interior warehouse space for the sorting and display of the building contents. The larger portions of the workers were assigned to removing the contents of the building to the loading dock where a steady stream of trucks shuttled between midtown Manhattan and the Brooklyn piers.
After first setting up security for control of the building and taking a visual inventory of the building contents, we immediately set up a phone bank for our sales force to use for contacting buyers. This force was made up from this same pool of at-risk young men, some of whom had some sales experience albeit with “hot” items or illegal substances. The next step was to train the sales force in the identification of the items in the building that would be for sale. Many of the young men had never been in an office building and were not familiar with the names or usage of the furniture and equipment. For example they needed to know the distinctions between types of file cabinets (lateral, letter, legal, lockable, 1,2,3,4, 5 drawer, etc. )
Ideally, the sales of the goods would be direct from the building to the buyer. We were able to do so with the more high tech computer equipment, which were purchased by the IT departments of NYC colleges. However, due to the short time frame we had to transport the bulk of the goods to the Brooklyn piers where we could display them for sale. Orange County businesses bought small truckloads of green bar tractor paper, electronic equipment racks and travel books. The large PAN AM Board of Directors table was sold to the renovators of the Glenmere mansion in Chester//Sugar Loaf, NY.
We were able to quickly obtain a variety of philanthropic grants that allowed us to provide a great number of non-profit organizations with free office furniture, equipment and residential furniture for their clients. Many organizations obtained high quality desks, computers, power strips, file cabinets, tables, chairs, copy machines, etc. for their offices. Organizations that furnished apartments for previously homeless families received dozens of pieces of the Pan AM signature red leather lobby and lounge furniture.
All, if not most of the huge volume of goods would have ended up in landfills had we not sorted and sold or distributed these goods. In addition many non-profits were able to utilize a greater proportion of their funding for client services since they would not have had to spend resources on purchasing furniture and equipment.
As a result of contacts made during the Pan Am project many additional businesses contacted us for the removal of surplus items that would have normally been thrown away. This resulted in a steady stream of recyclable goods that allowed us to operate salvaged goods stores in Harlem, Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Each of which proved additional employment opportunities for our trainees.
This is just one case in point. But the point is important. How we handle our waste stream can vary in the level of material recovery we achieve, the economic benefit accrued and, as illustrated here, major social benefits as well.