In the early ‘80s, at a time when Bellingham’s only mode of recycling required locals to load their cars with old cans and newspapers and drive to a drop-off spot, a group of volunteers decided to borrow a truck and take recyclables straight from people’s curbsides.
With an ethic of waste reduction, Bellingham Community Recycling, as the volunteers later called themselves, eventually spurred the city and county to offer curbside pickup as well. Over the next three decades, the organization developed programs charged with an array of sustainable-living goals. Its remodeled compound in Bellingham’s Fountain District opened in 2007.
Today, after making it through the economic recession, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities—the organization’s original moniker changed in 1995—is ready to map its future, said Crina Hoyer, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“I think we’re on the cusp of something spectacular,” Hoyer said.
RE Sources celebrates its 30th anniversary with music, food, do-it-yourself demonstrations and giveaways on Saturday, July 14, at the RE Store—the nonprofit’s popular retailer of salvaged building materials. (Read more about the event here)
In addition to the RE Store, the agency runs North Sound Baykeeper, which protects marine and nearshore habitats in north Puget Sound; Sustainable Schools, a program encouraging local schools to reduce waste and make more efficient energy and transportation choices; and the Sustainable Living Center, a hub for residents interested in “green” building, permaculture, solar tech and other sustainable practices.
Branching out from its original purpose likely saved the organization during the downturn, Hoyer said.
“If we had just stayed a recycling program, I don’t think we would have weathered the storm,” Hoyer said. “We have a commitment to this vision of a sustainable community.”
Like other nonprofits, RE Sources was not immune to the recession. The RE Store had to cut 25 percent of its staff, and every program saw drops in volunteers and resources. But hard times forced directors and employees to re-focus the organization and broaden its endeavors, which has given Hoyer optimism for the future.
Over the past couple of years, the nonprofit has become more visible in regional environmental issues. RE Sources is an active opponent of the Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point by SSA Marine of Seattle. It helped create the Power Past Coal group, an alliance of anti-coal advocates spread across the western U.S.
RE Store remains at center
As a clearinghouse of salvaged building materials, the Bellingham RE Store at 2309 Meridian St., is a crowded mash with shelves of plumbing fixtures, rows of cabinets and doors and dozens of bins with wheels, tools and hardware of all sorts.
The store, which opened in 1993, recovered and saved more than 2,200 tons of building supplies in 2010. Its annual sales typically top $1.5 million. RE Sources also operates a second branch in Seattle.
RE Store manager Rich Chrappa said while repurposing building materials for new construction is still a trend with builders and homeowners, it’s challenging to create a fair pricing system for the store’s items. Materials are usually sold at about half the cost of what they would sell for brand new.
Since the RE Store is in the business of re-selling, some customers think its inventory comes solely from donations, Chrappa said. Yet getting items on the shelves is not an easy task. While many items are donated, often the store’s staff recovers building material themselves.
“There’s actually quite a lot of labor that goes into salvaging that material,” Chrappa said.
RE Store staff haul materials out of building sites, strip them from homes undergoing remodeling and also offer full “deconstruction” services to demolish buildings and recover salvageable items. The store employs about two dozen people between its sales-floor team and its field crew.
Majorie Leone, the RE Store’s Bellingham field manager, said salvage efforts are tied to the real estate market. But since the recession, it’s been tougher to find recovery sites.
Residential projects are prime spots for salvage jobs, Leone said. Due to the time-crunching nature of commercial contracting, residential builders tend to also be more frequent customers, she said.
“Using used materials takes a little bit more time, a little bit more work,” Leone said. “You save some money, but it takes more work.”
A “new” economy
Jason Darling, education and marketing coordinator at the RE Store, said while the sputtering economic world has taxed RE Sources’ programs, as the organization’s third decade comes to a close, things are improving.
With broader public knowledge of the cost-savings that can come from green building techniques, including building with re-used or re-purposed materials, Darling said people are starting to catch on to the fact that what may look like trash can often be turned into something useful.
He said education and community service programs, such as the Sustainable Living Center, will be major components of RE Sources’ future.
“We’re in this new economy now, so we’re just adjusting to that,” Darling said. “We’re ultimately about meeting the needs of the community.”
Evan Marczynski Photos (click images to open slideshow)