I was lucky enough recently to have a chance to visit Ruth’s Reusable Resources (or 3R’s) in Portland, Maine and have a tour by the gregarious founder Ruth Libby, who was very accommodating and kind considering I dropped in unannounced.
3R’s has the mission of supporting schools with access to surplus business supplies meaning all manner of things from tables and chairs through to printing paper and coloured card for arts and crafts. To date, the organisation has managed to match Maine schools with around $58m worth of stuff that would otherwise have ended up most likely in landfill!
Social: with school budgets squeezed, there is always cost pressure to reduce ‘non-essential’ items like books, crafts’ supplies and stationery in preference for staff salaries, maintenance and repairs, and so on. As a school governor myself, I’m all too aware of this challenging balancing act that needs to be made within budgets. From the teacher’s perspective, if the district does not provide these materials, they will often spend out-of-pocket to procure the supplies for their students. Further, teachers are busy with lesson planning, teaching and marking, meaning having to go to multiple locations to procure items for classes can become an onerous task that affects work-life balance or instead be skipped to the detriment of the learning experience.
Environmental: Be it a corporate rebrand, lack of storage space for newer (‘shinier?’) items, new packaging/product specifications, minor blemishes, relocation, overly conservative ‘use by’ dates or any number of other reasons, businesses are prone to generating a huge amount of ‘waste’. All of these relatively rational behaviours create a depressing amount of ‘waste’ which would in most cases be landfilled. For example Ruth showed me buckets of top quality pencils that were surplus to requirements because the eraser on the end can harden over time and the manufacturer does not want to sell these to customers and damage its premium branding and reputation.
Provide a very affordable one-stop shop (or is it ‘warehouse’?) of stuff so that every child has the variety and quality of supplies to succeed in school. Further, allowing all these items to be picked up efficiently and without having the pressure of budgeting carefully on each trip means teachers can incorporate all the teaching aids they want to improve the learning experience.
For the environment, the model redirects a huge amount of items for reuse. When this is not possible, items can be disassembled and repurposed, and as a backstop recycled – only a very small proportion of items are not recyclable (typically certain plastics).
Ruth was often asked by her son’s school for arts and crafts supplies to enrich the learning experience – luckily she is not one to throw things away and was often able to meet their needs. Things changed considerably when she heard about a lady elsewhere in the country taking business surplus to give to schools and realised that she could take her own regular donations to the next level. That was 22 years ago, and since then she has scaled up her operations to be the biggest in the country. This took 3R’s from her basement to a classroom at a local school through to a multi-storey gymnasium. The last big step up was when the gymnasium was to be sold, Ruth managed to hustle a warehouse for purchase with kind support from Unum (an insurance company) who gave her a knock-down price for it and even help getting hold of financing. Further, she was also able to get volunteers to build her a wall to create a Teachers Store within the premises to really make it fit for purpose.
Businesses (primarily) donate surplus stuff for schools. 3R’s then provide the value-adding step of sifting through it, disassembling, sorting and recycling the items. For example, they may strip down a single child face painting pack and collate it so that brushes are kept with brushes, etc. into bulk stock. This provides far more opportunity for the items to be taken by teachers who may otherwise not be able to access the lone paintbrush within a packaged item. These processed items are then either kept in stock in the warehouse or move through to the front Teacher Store. Teachers at Member schools can then come and pick what they want from the store for their classes – albeit within a sensible limit so they don’t walk away with the whole store!
Teachers come into the store and pick up a sign-out sheet that has 58 categories of items with estimated monetary values associated with them – the teachers go around the store picking out the items they would like into a shopping trolley and noting down on their list that they hand in at the end. This system allows 3R’s to make sure someone does not walk away with too much in one go and also allows tracking of the value provided to the Maine school system. Further, 3R’s is currently unable to take full inventory records of items that come into the warehouse due to all the work involved and the lack of expensive digitised inventory systems, so it concentrates on the outflow.
3R’s rely on a network of great volunteers that help with all the back office activities. For income, the model relies on a small per student membership fee of $3 from participating schools. This is supplemented by donations typically from those that see the great benefits 3R’s brings and where possible, Ruth tries to add some grant funding and sponsorship.
Ruth took me around the giant 2,000 square metre warehouse with towering shelves going up to the ceiling. I was struck by just the sheer volume and variety of things that her team were saving from going to landfill - wandering down these darkened aisles, it was somewhat reminiscent of a temple to Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle…
As we walked around, the amount of thought and detail behind some of the activities going on became evident - as we turned one corner a volunteer was disassembling something, around another a team of three were chatting over rock music sorting through various piles of things. Some examples:
After meandering through the warehouse we entered the immaculate Teacher Store, beautifully ordered and layout clearly thought through. As Ruth showed me around, she could not hide her underlying meticulousness and pursuit of excellence that has built the organisation, correcting any minor deviations from perfection - from a slightly misaligned tub of pens to a small piece of leftover packaging, these were Ruth-lessly rectified.
We concluded the tour by returning to the great aisles of reuse where we encountered a map of similar organisations loosely affiliated each other across the country. Ruth’s was the biggest operation in the country – although I would not be surprised if it’s the biggest in the world...
Many thanks to Ruth for a great lowdown and tour, especially due to the unplanned nature of my visit.