TT with HD: Melinda Uerling
HD: Is this general pace going to work for you?
MU: Yeah, this'll work. It's been a long time since I've been on a teeter totter. You probably hear that a lot, I would think.
HD: Yeah, I don't think anybody has ever said, You know, I was just riding a teeter totter yesterday, and um, this one's not as good.
HD: Well, I'm glad you came today, because today is trash day on our street. You probably noticed all the blue bins as you drove up.
MU: And I managed not hit any when I drove down the street, so I was pretty proud of that.
HD: One of the arguments for these blue bins, issuing one per household, was that it would at least help psychologically people to think about the volume of trash they were generating, and maybe also to constrain physically the volume of trash they could dispose of, and make them think about putting the stuff that can be recycled in the recycling bins instead. So when Chris Easthope was here I think he said he thought that the early numbers were showing that that was being born out. So do you know yet for a fact that this has had a quantifiable impact?
MU: I haven't seen any of the trash numbers for a while, because we do the recycling. I do see what they take in, in terms of trash, but it's been a while since I've looked at them. I can tell you that in general that bears out across the country, that concept that if you have to somehow pay based on your volume, then people make an effort to reduce and they'll try to recycle more. What actually we've seen lately in the last two or three years is a trend down on recycling, which is a little alarming for us. We don't know why that is ...
HD: ... you mean locally or nationwide?
MU: In Ann Arbor, there's been drop. Just slightly. I think in 2000, it was 12 thousand tons per year and then it's been dropping down, last year it was maybe 10.5. It's kind of curious and we're a little concerned about it, because we want to make sure that everyone is doing what they can and that everybody knows how to use it. But there are some factors that are just a part of our industry. Like the fact that there's been a big conversion from glass to plastic containers. So that reduces waste. And people just aren't reading newspapers as much as they used to. So it's a drop in paper.
HD: But even though your absolute tonnage is dropping, maybe as a percentage of the total waste stream, you're still holding your ground?
MU: It's possible. Like I said, I haven't seen the trash numbers for a while. We've always had really, really good participation rates. We have like a 90-plus participation rate, which across the country is just incredible.
HD: So how is that defined, just the percentage of households who put out a grey and green bin?
MU: Exactly. We do a survey once a year. We pick random streets that are representative, and then we look at them over a four-week period and see how many times the bins are put out, and that's basically how it's determined.
HD: You may have noticed, we have two full recycling bins in the kitchen, even though today it's already been picked up. I can explain that. This week was Columbus Day, and so I thought I was being extra clever, thinking that the schedule would be delayed a day and that it would be tomorrow, even though today is our regular day. [Ed. note: The Waste Watcher publication put out by the City of Ann Arbor includes a list of holidays for which the collection schedule is shifted by one day. Columbus Day is not one of them.] So when I heard the truck this morning, I scurried out, and I got the blue bin wheeled out there, and the brown bags [of leaves], but I was not in time to get the recycling bins out there. So if somebody happens not to put theirs out, it would be counted as 'not participating' for that week?
MU: Exactly. But we're not the Recycling Police, I won't arrest you for not putting your bin out [laugh].
HD: Great. Well, the space where you will have noticed those full recycling bins was the space where our dishwasher was up until last week.
MU: Oh, wow.
HD: Yeah, so I made a visit to the Drop Off station. And I was feeling farily virtuous, I have to say, because I was getting rid of the dishwasher--which I think of as an energy hog--and then I was getting rid of it at Recycle Ann Arbor's Drop Off Station. It wasn't quite as much fun as I was hoping it would be.
MU: Was that your first trip to the Drop Off Station?
HD: No, see I've been there before and in the past, I've been allowed to toss stuff down off the ledge into these giant containers and watch it thud ...
MU: ... it's very satisfying ...
HD: ... it's extremely cathartic. I had this vision of tossing the dishwashing machine off the ledge, but alas, I was simply instructed to place it on the concrete pad in front of the container. There wasn't any place to toss it down. But where I was headed with this was, that I was feeling very virtuous about what I had done--I was creating a place for the recycling bins for easy access right in the kitchen, and I was getting rid of the dishwasher--but then this morning as I was doing background research to figure out how much energy I was saving by washing dishes by hand instead of with a dishwasher, I discovered that this is actually very controversial. Some Germans have done a study and shown that according to their measurements, it's actually way more energy-efficient to use a machine. And I was crestfallen.
MU: Today's machines are so energy-efficient and so water-efficient that I'm not surprised. We got a new dishwasher not too long ago, and the thing runs forever, but supposedly it uses half the water that our old, old one did. We have a house from the 1950's, and I swear the dishwasher was original. The thing was bulletproof and I loved it, but it used so much water it was ridiculous. It was time to get a new one. And the new one doesn't work as well as the old one.
HD: You mean it doesn't get the dishes as clean?
MU: Yeah. And it takes longer to do it. But it's using less water and less energy.
HD: So anyway, our old dishwasher actually worked, I think, we just never used it. It came with the house, and the only reason I was prompted to tear it out of there was, the hose that connected to the drain rotted through, and I noticed this, because I was getting drippage down into the basement and I couldn't figure out ...
MU: ... where is it coming from ...
HD: Right. So I thought, We never use that thing, let's just get rid of it! So now I realize that maybe the virtuous thing to do would be to go out and purchase a new dishwasher.
MU: Contribute to the economy!
HD: Yeah. Unless. I don't suppose, um, it was last week when I left the dishwasher, I don't suppose it would still be there?
MU: Oh, no.
HD: So what exactly happens to something like a dishwasher?
MU: The mystery of recycling. Well, they had you put in on the pad, right?
HD: Yeah, right next to a little mini-fleet of lawnmowers.
MU: So it sounds like they had you put it in front of the Metal Bin. Essentially all of that stuff--it's the 90-yard rolloff, which is really really big, where they put all the ferrous metals--that gets recycled at Omnisource, is I think who we're using, or another recycler. Once that rolloff is filled, we have a semi driver, who comes and hooks it up, and takes it to the recycling place, dumps it out, and brings back the empty box back. And it gets made into new dishwashers or something.
HD: So that actual recycling process is not something that happens onsite. So wherever that happens, is it some guy going through and unscrewing all the screws, or is it more like a big saw they're chopping it up with?
MU: I think it probably goes through some sort of shredder or a crusher.
HD: Really?? You can shred a dishwasher?!
MU: Oh yeah. I mean, you can shred autos. You can shred just about anything.
HD: Huh. Okay. Well I was trying to figure out what the relationship was between Recycle Ann Arbor and the Ecology Center.
MU: I'm so glad you asked!
HD: As best I understand, the Ecology Center, that's the mothership.
MU: That's right.
HD: And they 'own' you guys?
MU: That's right.
HD: Is that the vocabulary you like to use?
MU: [laugh] We have a really good relationship with the Ecology Center. Their executive director sits on our board and then another one of their board members also sits on our board. Legally, we're a wholly owned subsidiary of Ecology Center. But familiarly, we talk about being 'sister' organizations, sometimes 'parent-child'. But it's a good relationship, it's very comfortable.
HD: So would it be fair to say that the Ecology Center is sort of the theoretical, policy-wonkish part, and you guys are the ones who actually roll up your sleeves and do some stuff?
MU: That's a good way of looking at it. They like to call it 'advocacy', but yeah, they're working on the policy end of it, and we're doing the actual recycling.
HD: So the finances are separate?
MU: They're separate.
HD: So the Ecology Center couldn't say, Good job, you balanced the budget and that extra surplus of 50 grand you managed to sock away, we'll take that now.
MU: They could.
HD: But historically ...
MU: ... they haven't, right.
HD: What about liabilities? The Ecology Center is embroiled in some lawsuit right now, they're being sued by some pharmaceutical company. If that suit were to go against the Ecology Center, could you [Recycle Ann Arbor] be exposed financially?
MU: I don't know, that's a good question. Not many people know about the relationship between the two organizations, and historically we haven't done a lot to promote it, just because we're so different. Sometimes we're worried that maybe the connection isn't a good thing. When they're working on something that's really controversial, they perhaps don't want that to affect our business, for example. I know we're not named in the suit. So to that extent they either don't know about us, or they are not targeting us. I don't know if they could if they wanted to. Since we're wholly owned, I assume that if they were going after the Ecology Center's assets, we would be an asset.
HD: So it doesn't sound like this is a source of great worry to Recycle Ann Arbor.
HD: So what are your major worries these days? Or do you even have any?
MU: We've done a lot of growing in the last five or six years, and probably the most important thing that has happened, or really two things, the ReUse Center has grown so much, it's gotten really ...
HD: ... and you're talking about in terms of the amount of stuff that's in there as opposed to the square footage of the building itself?
MU: That's right. In terms of sales, and amount of stuff, and how many transactions we do. And then the other big win for us, three years ago now, we negotiated a long-term contract with the City for the curbside program. Historically it was a two-year contract, a three-year contract. Long-time Ann Arborites will remember that at one point it was awarded to a for-profit and we argued that they basically underbid substantially just to get the contract and so they gave us a short contract. Anyway, we've always been the service provider, and three years ago the City finally said, Hey, we consider you a partner, you're the one who started this program, you've been with us from the beginning and so we're willing to sign a 10-year contract with you.
HD: So that runs through ...
MU: Actually it's a 10-year with two 5-year extensions, so it started in '03.
HD: So that's 2013, wow, it's scary to even say that date.
MU: And yet it's already 2006! But that was really important for us, because it provided a stability that we didn't have before.
HD: Right, so you can count on that revenue source being there. But I guess it also means you also have to count on being committed to providing the service, as well, no matter how high the cost of fuel goes, etcetera, etcetera.
MU: Yes, that's right. The contract works well for both the City and for us and it allows for some cost increases based on COLA's, cost of living, and so on, so if there was a huge increase in something that we had to use, then hopefully that would be reflected. The City's always been really good if we had something that was unexpected and extraordinary, they might make allowance for that. It's a good relationship.
HD: So what percentage of Recycle Ann Arbor's revenue is that contract?
MU: Just a little over half.
HD: Really??!! Wow. I would have guessed like 95 percent.
MU: When I came on it was probably 60-70 percent. And with the growth of the ReUse Center--and the Drop Off Station has grown quite a bit as well--it's now more like 50-55.
HD: So has the ReUse Center switched over to the skis as opposed to golf clubs yet?
MU: They have! The big switchover!
HD: So where does that stuff get stored for the off-season?
MU: If you've ever been to the ReUse Center, if you walk in the front part where the cashier's station is, if you're walking in and the cashier's station is on your left, if you look towards the back of that room and to the left, there's a little loft area. That's where all the seasonal stuff goes. And behind that building, there's a mechanic's shed and another building we call the Outhouse, which is another storage place. We have other stuff stored back there.
HD: So besides the golf clubs and the skis, are there other seasonal ...
MU: ... Christmas items ...
HD: ... any other major seasonal items that people might not be as aware of. It's always pretty dramatic when you walk in after the switch, it's like, Wow, I guess you can buy skis here!
MU: Yeah, it's a real switch. Bicycles, I think they tend to stop taking as many during the winter, just because there's not as much draw for them. Things like air-conditioners, they don't take those. Well, we have started taking them in the colder weather now, because we can test them to see if they work.
HD: Speaking of not taking particular things, one thing that I suppose is a source of irritation for you guys is people just dumping garage sale castoffs, just a big pile of stuff, in front of the gate. I mean there's a sign that says you shouldn't do it, so I'd guess people do do it and that's why there's a sign.
MU: Yes. We find things donated at our front door, which is the staff entrance, it's right on South Industrial. And we'll see stuff piled up at the gate as well. Sometimes it can be bad, sometimes it's not so bad. What happens is one person does it, and then the next person comes along and sees we're closed but, Okay, I'll put my stuff there, too ...
HD: They should be happy I'm donating stuff!
MU: That's exactly it. Most of the time, we do like it when people give us stuff. Obviously that's a benefit to the community and to us. But if it's stuff we can't sell that we have to throw away or recycle, that's a cost to us. People remember the ReUse Center when it first opened, it was a we'll-take-anything kind of approach. And we've really refined that based on what we can sell and what we can't. We're not going to take something that we're going to have to at best recycle, and at worst throw away.
HD: So for clothes, for example, I know you guys don't take clothes. Is that a decision based on what you can sell or is it just that over at Kiwanis or what's the other place ...
MU: ... Salvation Army ...
HD: ... that they've got that part of the market covered?
MU: Yeah, I think we did it a few years. I started in 2000 and I think they had done it for a short time before that. I think they just found that there are plenty of other organizations doing it, so it wasn't like we were filling a need that was really there. And it's a big hassle, all the processing and putting it on hangers, just dealing with it, it's a lot of time.
HD: And the revenue per piece is just not that much.
MU: So we were happy to let the folks who've been in it for a long time continue to do it.
HD: Is your office actually on the same property as the ReUse Center?
HD: So if you wanted to you could go through on a daily basis and kind of cherry pick the good stuff?
MU: [laugh] Yes. We try not to do it too much. But we actually we have an employee discount, so employees do have some appreciation when they want to buy something. And sometimes we'll pull stuff for the office itself. And if we do that, we'll actually run a transaction, because our sales staff, they actually get a percentage of the sales ...
HD: ... they get a commission?
MU: Well, no, they're paid a salary, but they also get a commission based on the sales as well.
HD: But as a group as opposed to, Hey, I sold that ...
MU: Exactly. We didn't want salespeople fighting for commissions, so it's across the group. But we do run it through the register, so that if we decide to take this really nice conference table into the office, that they'll get some kind of credit for that sale.
HD: Got it. So how does that work with the ethics of pricing, or maybe I'm imagining tensions where there aren't any really. But if the guy who prices the thing is also the guy who buys it, that would probably be problematic.
MU: If somebody on staff at the ReUse center wants to buy something, somebody else prices it, and then the manager has to sign off on it. There's sort of a process.
HD: So you've thought that through.
MU: [laugh] You know, you think we cherry pick, if you've spent any time at the ReUse Center, you see people who practically live there. They're always waiting for that next big thing to come off the truck, and when the truck comes in they're right there and they want to know what it is. So we have some real regulars.
HD: Oh really! So even more than the once-a-week that Brandon Wiard described?
MU: Oh yeah, we have people that come in every day. And they'll hang out for hours. You wonder what they do with their day and why they have so much time, but we're happy to have them with us as long as they're shopping and playing nice!
HD: So what's the coolest thing that you've snagged out of there?
MU: We get some really cool stuff. I think the nicest thing I got out of there was, it looks like Workbench-style bookshelves, it's maple, and it's divided into equal squares. It's a nice piece of furniture and I have that in my office. That's probably the nicest thing I've gotten out of there. But we get some goofy things. A long time ago we got Pony Express saddle bags, which we actually ended up selling on eBay.
HD: Yeah? What'd they go for?
MU: I think they probably went for as much as 500.
HD: So real, authentic Pony Express mail bags that they put on the pony?
HD: Makes you wonder, somebody from Ann Arbor ...
MU: ... or in the area ...
HD: ... must have owned them, so how did they get them? How did you go about authenticating them?
MU: They did a little research on the internet. Everything's on the internet these days. And we're fortunate to have some of our staff who are really knowledgeable about antiques in general. Then we have a lot of people who are willing to provide their expertise on things we don't know anything about. We have one guy who's been with us a long time who comes in, totally volunteer, and looks at our books, and lets us know if we've got books that are really valuable. So we pull those out of the dollar and the fifty-cent bins.
HD: So can books ever wind up in the Collector's Corner, that special area for the really cool high quality stuff?
MU: They usually put the really nice books in the glass cases by the cashier.
HD: So has the Collector's Corner been a huge success?
MU: I think so. The reason we did that was because we get some really nice stuff and we get some typical stuff. And we would have this stuff all priced down the line and you'd have people going down the line, saying Okay, dresser, 25, 50, 25, 200??!! The shock of, You want 200 dollars for this dresser!! And we had some of the regulars think that our prices were too high, or that we were thinking we were bigger than we are. So we thought of taking all this stuff and putting it in one little spot and that's the only place where we're going to have higher-priced stuff. Then people know if it's there, that it's nicer stuff. And that if you really just want a dresser for your kid or for your dorm room, then the rest of the space is for you. So it's been really popular, people really like it. We used to put that stuff up on the internet. We sort of stopped doing that, because we really didn't have the staff to do it. But we might start doing that again.
HD: Do you have any sense of how long it takes for most of the entire inventory to cycle through?
MU: That's a good question, we're always trying to figure that out. Because as an organization on an annual basis, we like to talk about how much we've recycled or kept out of the landfill, and that's the one metric that's really hard to measure. How is it really full, and how big is it, and how often did it turn over? I think probably the whole space turns over maybe four or five times a year maybe, I'm guessing.
HD: Oh really!
MU: And some stuff, like I say, never even hits the floor. You have people waiting at the back of the truck saying, I want that thing right there, it gets priced and they take it right home.
HD: Anything else on your mind today?
MU: Oh, it's cold!
HD: Yeah it is.
MU: But I like it. I like the snowy kind of weather.
HD: This is a very odd day. It's sort of partly sunny now, you can see some sun peeking through, but on Accuweather internet radar, there's a big huge blue blob that's marching across the state of Michigan. I figured, actually, based on the radar, that it would start snowing while we were teeter tottering.
MU: It would have been nice. What I've been thinking about most is just the elections. I'm just waiting for that stuff to be over.
HD: You're thinking of the gubernatorial?
MU: Well, the nationals and the congressional districts across the country.
HD: So are you heavily involved on a political level?
MU: Not really. I mean, I follow it. The Ecology Center is a little bit more politically active than we are, and that rubs off on me a little bit.
HD: Have you been watching the debates?
MU: I haven't, no. I just haven't been home for them.
HD: Poor Dick DeVos.
MU: Yeah, I've heard he's getting his butt kicked.
HD: It's just not [laugh] a good forum for him. He doesn't present well in that forum. I think even if you like his politics you have to concede that he was nuts to agree to that forum.
MU: She is so good at that. She looks good on camera, she's very personable.
HD: Well, she revealed, I guess not exactly revealed during the second debate, but it was new to me so maybe to some other people, that she was born in Canada.
MU: I did know that actually.
HD: Which means that if she has any further aspirations, they can't be presidential.
MU: Yeah, I remember that came up when Arnold Schwartenegger was elected governor [of California] because there was talk about him going further. And she was mentioned in the same context, because there's this other governor who has the same situation.
HD: Yeah, Schwartenegger and Granholm in the same sentence, that's kind of odd.
MU: [laugh] Exactly.
HD: Well, listen, I'd like to thank you very much for coming over and teeter tottering, even though it's just an awful day for it.
MU: It was a trip. I really enjoyed it. I got your invitation and I thought, this looks exciting, I gotta do this.