California recycles a profitable idea

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ever thought of owning a floor made from old telephone poles? How about a flowerpot manufactured from used plastic milk jugs? Dinnerware crafted from glass bottles?

No, these items aren't produced by a group of second-graders. They are high-quality, attractive products made from recycled material, and they're just a sampling of the offerings at the RecycleStore (www.ciwmb.ca.gov/recyclestore).

The RecycleStore is an online collection of recycled goods for sale to the public and to retail stores. The site, run by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, is part of a statewide campaign to keep reusable materials out of the landfills.

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Steve Boyd, project manager for the RecycleStore, says the online vendor plays an important role in the effort to get reusable materials back into consumers' hands. It does so by helping to meet the needs of manufacturers."Recycling is great, but there has to be a market for the recycled goods," he says.

Before the website was created, businesses that produced recycled goods were generally limited to small local markets. The RecycleStore "opens these markets up to worldwide [buyers]," Mr. Boyd says.

While individuals can purchase items directly from most of the RecycleStore merchants, the site is geared mainly toward wholesale buyers for retail outlets.

The merchandise covers a huge range of items, from backpacks designed for carrying a Chihuahua to intricately carved wooden beds. The products are made from wood, glass bottles, plastics, "just about everything that is in our waste stream," says Boyd.

The site strives to be a one-stop shopping experience, where consumers can buy a garbage can or a fancy present for Aunt Mabel – all with a few clicks of a mouse.

So far, the store has been a huge success. When it opened, it sold 35 products; now it markets more than 300. More important, it has helped California reduce its waste by 42 percent. (The state's current goal is a 50 percent reduction.)

But Boyd doesn't measure the store's success in numbers, he measures it through the "love letters" he gets from customers and manufacturers. The RecycleStore takes no commission. In fact, it makes no profit at all.

Other people, however, do measure the site's success with numbers. Timothy Vander Heiden, owner of Van Duerr Industries, a company in Chico, Calif., that makes ramps for wheelchair access, says that the online store has created sales of tens of thousands of dollars for his company. "It has given us great exposure," he says.

Currently, only manufacturers in certain parts of the state are eligible to post their goods on the site, but Boyd wants to see the site opened to all California companies. He would also like to see it used as a model for other states, or for a federal site run by the EPA. For now, the store is the only one of its kind, but other states link to it from their websites.

And what are some of the sites best-selling products? Children's swings and doormats made out of recycled tires are popular, as are glass dinnerware made from glass bottles and furniture built from recycled lumber.

The site may not yet carry everything a consumer needs, but Roni Javi, director of media relations for the RecycleStore, suggests that shoppers should think of the RecycleStore before they look elsewhere. When they do, they may find what they need and help the environment at the same time – whether they're looking for a gardening apron or an anchor for a fishing raft.

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