Waste not, want not
Glen Arbor Sun
By F. Josephine Arrowood
“Thar’s gold in them thar hills!” So went the old saying about the 19th century Gold Rush in the American West. Today, there’s a resurgence of eager entrepreneurs mining for wealth—only now, the mountains are made of trash piled up in garbage bins, at curbsides, and landfills in every community in the country.
Andy Gale of Cedar is one such seeker who has made “waste not, want not” his personal and professional mission. The founder of Bay Area Recycling for Charities (BARC) discusses his visionary goals and the extraordinary growth of his six-year-old venture.
BARC collects a wide variety of recyclable materials from both residential and commercial customers, offering both convenience and a cost-effective way to make their detritus “disappear.” He then sells or negotiates with outside salvage companies, who repurpose the goods. His company also collects food scraps to create and sell compost, manages the waste at public events, businesses and institutions like the National Cherry Festival, Oryana Food Co-op, Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center, and provides services to more intimate gatherings, such as weddings and family reunions. As well as diverting garbage from the region’s limited landfill space, and reduction of pollutants and contaminants from the environment, his company also contributes a portion of profits to area charities and nonprofits.
Originally, Gale says, “I wanted to make a more convenient way to give back to the community with the nonprofit idea, and a way to make it [the business] profitable. When I started out, I thought it would be me and a pickup truck, and the freedom to do what I wanted. But after a few months, I realized I needed help. We’ve gone from 10 employees to 17 in the past few months. We’ll get upwards of 20 to 25. We just got three more VISTA Americorps interns. We now have six semi trucks! It was very daunting at first: ‘What am I gonna do with that!’ Then I just went through the process of learning about it.”
“There’s a whole underworld of recyclers, a lot of information that gets shared,” he continues. “You develop relationships. Most of us have our niches. For a while, we were the only ones recycling three through seven types of plastics. I had been staring into the bottoms of these yogurt containers (number fives): ‘what are these plastics?’”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 report on municipal solid waste—in other words, garbage—we Americans toss out 251 million tons of used, spoiled, worn out or just plain unwanted stuff annually, at an average rate of 4.38 pounds per day. Of this, we only recycle or compost just over a third of that: 87 million tons, or 1.5 pounds per person per day. Fortunately, the trend toward reuse, reduction and recycling is growing.
Bay Area Recycling for CharitiesWhat sort of person would see other people’s trash as potential treasure?
“I was a weird kid, building solar panels out of garden hoses and stuff. I was always drawn to ‘free stuff’ and foraging like animals: the same way people go foraging for morels and [other food]. There’s the materials sitting there at the curb, like redemption (returnable) cans, and there’s value there.”
The son of a carpenter and general contractor, Gale earned a BS in construction management at Colorado State University, and spent 17 years in that industry. As a sales representative for a lumber company, he soaked up sound business principles like filing, marketing and budgeting for projects.
“The company I worked for in hindsight was very green. We took second-growth trees—not cutting old growth—trees eight inches in diameter, veneered them down and glued the strips together to make 4x12s. [Previously] you would have needed three to four-foot diameter trees, cutting old growth. They used aspen and poplar, what traditionally were called trash trees. They invented Microlams: wood I-beams. It was an easy sell: good price, excellent product.”
At some point, he and his wife Cindy made a decision that would transform their lives. “Around 2000, we came up with the crazy idea to take a year off. We bought an RV, and crisscrossed the country a couple times. We were on a mission to find the best place to raise a family, and ultimately wound up in Traverse City.” Other beautiful locations called. “Bar Harbor, the panhandle of Florida, Alaska, too—the weather in San Diego is perfect—but at the end of the day, this was it.”
“I’m actually from Chicago,” he says, but oddly, even Traverse City felt too big, the pace too frenetic. The family relocated to Leelanau County, where they discovered that, “Cedar’s a really good place to raise kids.”
But in this beautiful region where tourism and farming offer a majority of seasonal, low-paying wages, year-round work that can support a family of four can be thin on the ground. In 2008, Gale’s desire for meaningful employment, along with his business acumen, inquiring mind, and early inclination to salvage, all came together to form BARC.
BARC_3512RT-webHe was surprised when talking recently to an old college roommate, who asked him if he’d ever followed through on his early plan to start a recycling business. He laughs, “I didn’t remember talking about that—but even back in college, I must have had the idea.” Now age 47, he recalls that “the idea of recycling was important in the ’70s, but it didn’t take root all the way in some places. There’s a revitalization now, and businesses who commit to [the principles]. There’s mandates, standards and laws, and things they want to do—for many reasons: the competitive and marketing edge, or to reduce their industrial waste, or lessen their carbon footprint.”
He cites wisdom from one early mentor, Ray Minervini, one of the developers of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. “Without a margin, there is no mission,” meaning that grandiose visions of helping humanity are all very well, but simply won’t fly far without a way to pay for them.
“We never rely on a grant to help us,” Gale says. “We’re making sure that we’re taking care of business,” so that they can stay in business. BARC does partner with area community organizations to further mutually-held goals. Grand Traverse Industries, for instance, trains, supports and employs people with disabilities, and emphasizes high-quality products and services to customers. The two companies recently acquired TC eWaste, an electronics recycling company, which BARC will administer. GTI also manufactures biodegradable plastic bags, such as trashcan liners, which BARC sells as part of their more eco-friendly product line (which also includes compostable service-ware: plastic-like, disposable flatware, plates, glasses and cups).
BARC has also teamed up with American Waste (AW), a traditional waste hauler in the region. What might have been strictly a competitor (AW also accepts recycling on a fee basis), has evolved into a symbiotic partnership of sorts. Gale and his team educate and inform customers about items that BARC doesn’t handle, such as certain construction debris like window glass, drywall and asphalt shingles, which AW recycles.
The entrepreneur notes that, “With recycling, for every landfill job you take away, you create 10 other jobs.” His voice takes on the cadence of a revivalist, preaching the gospel of waste not, want not.
“Of the volume of one garbage truck, we have people driving to pick up materials, people composting, people sorting materials, people delivering. From one street truck for garbage, we have three trucks, plus a guy marketing and selling compostables.”
When employee Jordan Byron originally came to Gale, he said, “I can’t afford to pay you at this time.” Byron responded, “You don’t have to.” He knew that the products, such as compostable flatware, plates, cups and related items, could sell themselves to green-minded companies and organizations that include Oryana, Leelanau Outdoor Center, the Leelanau Conservancy, Building 50 and the Traverse City Film Festival. From there, the general public, including those who don’t recycle the other two-thirds of our nation’s garbage, would gain contact and exposure to these products, and might think of them as an option for themselves.
Gale sees educating people as a vital component to continue growing the recycling movement, like the compost he makes and sells to spread around. “We do classes, trips to our facilities.” Some of his interns have been working on a series of educational materials that would be added to schools’ curriculums. His aim is to make recycling so convenient, so normal and known, that it becomes second nature for just about everyone in our greater society.
Currently, Leelanau County doesn’t offer standard curbside recycling, relying instead on a small network of drop-off sites with large “birdhouse” style bins. Gale, a member of the Solid Waste Council, notes that Public Act 69—the Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling Programs act of 2005—authorizes collection of an annual fee from residents to recover the costs. But there’s a certain annoyance factor in having to hoard waste and store it in entryways, garages, mudrooms and cupboards, then schlep bags and bags of the stuff to vehicles for a trip to (mostly) out-of-the-way recycling stations. While merely inconvenient, the annoyance factor is a real barrier for many—who choose to simply throw away these reusable items, rather than have to pay constant attention to them.
But wait, Gale counters, “There is curbside recycling here,” offered through BARC. So what would convenient curbside recycling look like for a typical family of four people in Leelanau?
From BARC, “You’d have a 96-gallon, black plastic can, like the garbage totes, with our big orange BARC decal. The reason we use black bins is that they cost less, and they’re black because they’re made from recycled content. You’d have your little sorting system set up, probably in the house. Paper, glass, plastics, metal—even the lids—can all go into the same bag, which you would put into the black can. You can also put in bagged clothing to Goodwill, batteries in a ziplocked bag, electronics bagged or in a box—perfect! You’d have cardboard items flattened in a cardboard box outside the tote. We would pick it up weekly, or biweekly, monthly, on call—whatever you set up, for $20 a pickup. Most residential customers are on a monthly schedule.”
As mundane as empty plastic water bottles, tin cans and crumpled newspapers may seem, it’s all part of Gale’s focus on the bigger picture: quality of life for our communities. He’s excited about a new initiative that BARC is about to roll out called Focus Green 2020, whose tag line is, “Focus green—our vision is 2020.”
“We’re going to try to make the Traverse City area cutting edge green by the year 2020, starting this year,” Gale says. He sees friendly competitions among many cities and towns in Michigan, as they start to think about the issues related to waste, pollution and resources.
“It’s not just about waste; it’s about energy, our carbon footprint.“ His enthusiasm builds as he brainstorms: “What about smokers? Or, what community spends the least amount of time commuting? We’re talking to Rotary Charities and other folks about things we can do to make this area the greenest. Then it’ll be a matrix, not just in Michigan, but other communities across the country.”
He laughs, “The inquiring mind is definitely the catalyst that makes it all fun, but also the challenge to stay focused.”
When Andy Gale speaks about trash and recycling and the need to keep pushing for stronger, healthier community, it’s clear that there is still so much to be done across the wide spectrum of activities and options, and that this visionary is game for trying everything.
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