Rural Action, started in the early 1990s by the Appalachian Public Interest Campaign as a member-based agency to focus on regional revitalization, may be the first self-conscious Zero Waste organization that initiated reuse and recycling infrastructure planning for rural development. The organization is centered on the eight counties surrounding Athens (Hopkins County) in southern Ohio, including communities in Kentucky and West Virginia. [1] AceNet, a non-profit kitchen, provides small caterers with the kitchen facilities they need to sustain small businesses. Rural Action [2] also assisted in getting ReUse Industries (now Upcycle Ohio Thrift) off the ground in the 1990s, helping to launch what has become Maker Space and Tool Library.

The Zero Waste program is based on sharing facilities, transportation and market information for recyclable and compostable materials and repaired products.

Rural Action, a founding member of the ReUse Corridor, in turn formed a wider network with the Coalfield Development Corporation, located in West Huntington, WV, a network with members in Ohio and Kentucky comprised of non-profit organizations, anchor institutions and private businesses. The ReUse Corridor envisions a revitalization of the perennially economically distressed Appalachian Region through the re-skilling of its working population based on the potential resources that come with access to the waste stream. The latter provides the inventory for local opportunities to add value, through new jobs, small businesses and an expanded tax base. The membership of the new network is comprised of county and state economic development agencies, private companies and non-profit social enterprises. Each entity plays a specific role in a system that highlights neighbor helping neighbor.

The initial planning and implementation for the ReUse Corridor came from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the US Department of Agriculture.

The ReUse Corridor chose Mid Atlantic Solid Waste Management Consultants to assist in the planning and implementation of the project. The company represented by Steve Deasy, undertook a comprehensive assessment of the solid waste and recycling landscape covering markets, government resources, sites for staging areas, outreach to new companies; and how to react to new materials in the waste stream and processing needed to accommodate an ongoing supply chain of materials to these companies.  “This is a unique opportunity to use untapped labor and materials resources to create a supply chain of materials to local markets and attract new companies,” Deasy points out. The outcome has been that the project has been able to put hard numbers on the vision changing the waste stream into a wealth stream.

The fundamentals of the network are collection, aggregation and education. All three aspects are served by ongoing events where materials and reusable items are dropped off. Regularly scheduled ReUse Corridor events are supplemented by piggybacking on events planned by other likeminded organizations such as fairs and school events. Each event can collect as much as 5 tons of materials. It takes two workers and seven volunteers per event. In 2020, the ReUse Corridor participants aggregated 43,000 tons of materials and products.

Once aggregated, truck trailer loads are shipped to processing and/or end-use manufacturers within the region.  Mattresses, electronic scrap, compost, textiles, wicker baskets, corrugated cardboard create a supply chain for industry. Each member enterprise also acts as a drop-off site for materials needed by other ReUse Corridor member facilities. Thus each enterprise has both a demand for materials it requires, plus it acts to aggregate the supply of targeted materials for other members. The logistics using dead head loads reduces the cost of transportation within the network. The network is always looking for new additions to the system. The ReUse Corridor expands organically and deepens its programs within its area. It also is able to expand geographically as new Appalachian communities join. Thus, when PureTech located in Ohio it opened up the market for polypropylene (plastic # 5), allowing another material to be added to the collection and aggregation system. Network members will send one thousand pound loads to the plant. Similarly, investment in film plastic recycling in South Carolina will soon add another industrial outlet for agricultural and commercial materials.[3]

Trade journals strive to track the scores of new companies focused on 3-7 plastics recovery and remanufacturing. Other private companies serve as end use markets for mattresses, electronic scrap and textiles. Goodwill Industries serves the network as the processing and marketing agent for cardboard and paper. Goodwill Industries also provides warehouse space until the ReUse Corridor’s own Black Diamond warehouse is completed in Huntington, W.V.

Local schools play a big role as drop off points for students and their families. Ambitious schools gather materials from outside the school network as well. With time the amount of materials collected increases dramatically. By the end of 2020 the network delivered over 100,000 pounds of textiles, over 40,000 pounds of books and an estimated total of 2 million pounds of all materials and products, delivered through the ReUse Corridor’s logistical system using trailers, box trucks and vans. Schools are also recruitment grounds for youth trainees as future workers. Ed Newman, Zero Waste Director for Rural Action and an active member of the ReUse Corridor, explains, “We look for places where materials can go and where young people can find good jobs and start careers.”

Recycled materials are combined with city and county recycling programs to get better market prices. Information is shared through bi-weekly membership meetings via the Internet. Veteran community development and recycling activists interact with equally enthusiastic younger staff members. In December the ReUse Corridor conducted the virtual Circular Economy Conference co-sponsored by the University of West Virginia with over 50 participants.  The network is constantly auditing the region for new sources of materials and products as well as new end users in the region.

The ReUse Corridor has expert technical resources from MSW Consultants, a small but highly competent consulting firm.

The end result is that clean recyclables and compostable materials and high quality repairable products are delivered to strategic partners and then on to regional markets, with increased value added to the materials and more good jobs for regional workers at each step along the way.

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Author: Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Neil Seldman, Institute for Local Self-Reliance