Cents and Sensibility

Connect with the reuse experts in Raleigh

Staff WriterOctober 17, 2010 

Whenever I think about saving money, I think about my mom. She was an expert at it. With six kids, she had to be.

She died before recycling came into vogue, but she was a master at reuse. It was the linchpin of her saving strategy. She went way beyond making us kids wear hand-me-downs. The tubs that butter came in were washed and reused to hold leftover food. Soda bottles were redeemed for change. Old clothes were turned into warm quilts.

I was thinking of that recently after I talked to MaryEllen Etienne, the founder of the Reuse Alliance. Her group is putting on the first ever national reuse convention, Reuse Conex, this week in Raleigh.

For Etienne, who lives in Greensboro, reuse isn't really about saving money. She wants to save the planet and show people that reuse is a viable business model. She points out that reuse is a multibillion-dollar industry. She also is quick to distinguish between reuse and recycling. She says reuse offers way more benefits than recycling in that it:

Consumes less energy and conserves natural and man-made resources.

Provides quality products to those with limited means.

Generates revenue, which contribute to the economy.

It also creates jobs.

"The statistics will blow your mind," she says. "The EPA and the Institute for Self Reliance have figured that when you're managing 10,000 tons of material, incinerating it creates one job. Landfilling creates six jobs; recycling creates 36 jobs, while reusing those same materials can create 28 to 296 jobs."

The Reuse Alliance got its start in New York five years ago. Etienne, the founding director, followed her heart to Greensboro a few years later and is now busy spreading Alliance chapters around the country. The group's goal is to be a resource and support for people who want to start businesses based in reusing materials, and to create awareness of the value of reuse.

The conference has about 60 speakers coming from across the country and the world to talk about their reuse efforts. It also offers training for novices and skill building for those who are old pros in the business. But I'm particularly intrigued by the Expo, fun stuff aimed at the rest of us.

There will be a silent auction and more than 40 exhibitors, including Goodwill, Habitat's Restore and the Scrap Exchange; local businesses that are, as Etienne says, making a difference and making a living. Products that show the value of reuse will be available to buy, as will pieces from a "ReArt" exhibit showcasing local reclaimed material. Redress Raleigh, which takes old clothes and re-interprets them, will put on a Refashion show on Monday.

All of the items available will show how you can extend the life of something and perhaps bring a little joy in the process. You may also come away with some money-saving ideas on how you can reuse items in your house that you thought were destined for a landfill.

So what does Etienne reuse?

She brings her own take-out boxes to restaurants, always has reusable bags and shops at the Habitat Restore first - to name just a few of her practices.

"It's all about making choices," she says. "Some seem small but when you put them all together, it makes a difference."

It's a triple bottom line my mom would approve of.

The convention is at the North Raleigh Hilton Monday through Wednesday. Registration for the full conference, including meals, is $150 for all three days or $85 for one day. The Expo is Monday and Tuesday only. The best time to show up for it is between 8 and 9 a.m., 1 and 2 p.m. and 5 and 7 p.m. - dedicated Expo time - as many exhibitors also are taking part in the conference sessions.

Tickets to the Expo only are $20, but you can get in free if you bring a donation of gently used clothing, shoes, housewares, art supplies or tools. Donations will be distributed to Goodwill, Share Our Shoes, Green Chair Project, Scrap Exchange and Habitat ReStore.

For info on the conference sessions, go to www.reusealliance.org. For info on the Expo, go to http://reuseconex.org/expo.

mary.cornatzer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4755

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