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Finger Lakes ReUseFinger Lakes ReUse307,041,000 times an average of 5 pounds of waste per person in the United States per day equals 1,535,205,000 pounds of waste per day.  That's 560,349,825,000 (five hundred and sixty trillion pounds plus change) of waste per year.  That's 280,174,912.5 tons.  It adds up.  That's why it makes sense to reuse what we can and recycle as much of the rest as possible.

The Finger Lakes Reuse Center opened last November to try to make that easy -- easy to donate things you don't want or need any more, and easy to find those things in their Triphammer Mall store.  The 501 c3 not profit organization's mission is based on the 'Triple Bottom Line' of Planet, People, and Profit that many for-profit companies are beginning to adopt. 

"We have a threefold mission to enhance community, economy, and environment through reuse," says Executive Director Diane Cohen.  "There is a business approach and the very obvious environmental aspect of what we're doing.  But it's the community based part that we're really interested in."


To that end the ultimate goal is not only a sustainable planet, but a sustainable business as well.  That means polling potential customers and donors to see what they would like to see going through the store, pricing right, and carrying the right items for the Ithaca community.

The shop is focusing on household goods, building materials, and furniture.  It has soft-launched computers, but the staff is still working out exactly how that will work.  The scale of items is startling.  The store accepts anything from a small picture frame to an entire house.  Items are priced to move, and the concept has a lot of support in the community.  Over 14,000 people have visited the store since it opened eight months ago.

"We wanted it to have a strong business approach," Cohen says.  "We didn't want to add yet another non-profit organization into an area that has many, many non-profits, and be an additional burden on the generous individual donors, local foundations and the tax roles.  We saw an opportunity to make a good portion of our income from the revenues from the sales of our goods.  We hope that will be upwards of 70% to 80% in the first five years."

In some ways the store is a victim of its own success.  Cohen says they have had to turn away some large donations because they don't have enough room to store them.  She recommends calling before making donations to make sure the store can handle it.  The current facility is 7,000 square feet including a storage room in back with racks for lumber and space for larger items.  But Cohen says the goal is to find a 20,000 to 40,000 square foot facility with a yard to provide enough space to really handle large appliances and building materials, and furniture on a scale that they think there is a demand for.

On the other hand the storefront around the corner from Joanne Fabrics generates a lot of traffic, and she credits Administrative Manager Louise Henrie's window displays for bringing those people into the store.  "This is a great place to start," she says.  "We love the location.  We're trying to figure out whether we should set up a second satellite."

The center has relied on grants and donations to get off the ground, but Cohen hopes there will be a day when it supports itself.  Meanwhile she says they will launch an individual giving campaign and possibly pursue more grants.

Diane Cohen

To make it as easy as possible for people to donate as well as to buy, the store is open seven days a week, from 9am to 6pm on every day except Sunday, when it is open from noon to 5pm.  The shop also has a pickup service to encourage donation of larger items such as furniture.

One of the most remarkable things about the store is that you can donate an entire house.  The shop's reconstruction program can actually save 70% to 90% of the materials in a house from going to the landfill.  The store bids against traditional demolition contractors, and Cohen says her bids are typically higher because of the extra time and labor needed to extract the pieces carefully so they can be reused.  But she says that the tax deduction for donating that much in materials can offset the price difference.

"That does make it work for a lot of people," she says.  "It can be a substantial tax donation if you count the cabinets, light fixtures, door handles, all the trim, staircase, flooring, and structural materials."

So far the program has started small with a two-car garage in Fall Creek, an addition on a shed in Trumansburg, and a hunting cabin in Candor.  Their next project is a garage addition in Ellis Hollow, and they have a couple of bids on houses outstanding.

At this time the store has 10 paid employees, and Cohen says it is a committed living wage employer offering benefits.  In addition there are volunteers from various sources including the Social Services work experience program, and Jump Start jobs program.

Cohen herself is from the Albany area, and came here to go to Ithaca College, where she studied fine art and politics.  After school she worked at the Rongovian Embassy as a bartender, booking the bands and eventually became the manager.

"I learned about what community is in Trumansburg," she says.  "When I heard about a program manager position at Significant Elements I was very interested.  From the beginning of that job in 2001 I saw the social benefits that reuse could have and I've been very interested in that ever since.  A lot of this program is a result of me thinking for eight years at that job, what more can we do?"

She credits the founding board members in particular for turning the concept into a reality.  Those include Tompkins County Solid Waste Manager Barb Eckstrom, Supervisor of Recycling and Resource Management Programs at Ithaca College Mark Darling, and Tania Schusler, who helped found Finger Lakes ReUse while environmental issues educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.

Schusler now teaches at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., but Cohen says she has remained quite active on the board.  David Newman, Lyn Leopold, and Sarah Adams now fill out the six-member board.


Cohen views Fingerlakes Reuse as a way to redistribute wealth in a fashion that satisfies all the stakeholders, serves the community, and makes a dent in reducing those tons of materials that would otherwise go into landfills.

"My favorite part is the promise this organization has, the potential to be able to provide much needed support to some of the other agencies  that have been slogging it out in the trenches for years," Cohen says.  "Whether it's just loaning our truck at no charge to help a low income client move some stuff -- we have stuff in our infrastructure that most of the non-profits don't -- and figuring out how to share that."


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