Supporting Our Community While Saving Our Planet: It’s All in a Day’s Work for the Green Team

green_team2Last year, the Rotary Club of Bainbridge Island’s annual Auction & Rummage Sale raised a whopping $481,000 in six hours. This huge influx of capital went directly to 30 local nonprofit organizations, including Bainbridge Youth Services, Friends of the Farms, Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network, and PAWS of Bainbridge Island, in addition to major community projects, international humanitarian projects, and community service and vocational scholarships for local teens. Proceeds from the Auction & Rummage Sale are never applied to the Rotary Club’s operational expenses, all of which are covered by membership dues.

Pulling off an annual fundraiser of this magnitude is not a simple matter; more than 120 Rotarians and over 1,400 local volunteers collectively work thousands of hours to make it happen. Interestingly, the group of Auction & Rummage Sale volunteers that works the hardest year-round—without selling a thing—is the group that hangs out by the dumpsters. Meet the crew that embodies the principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle in ways you’ve never imagined: The Green Team.

Cleaning Out Our Closets

During calendar year 2015, the residents and businesses of Bainbridge Island sent 9,800,000 pounds of waste to the Columbia Ridge landfill in Arlington, Oregon. The Green Team, which executes what is ostensibly the largest recycling event on Bainbridge Island, is determined to play a part in reducing the amount of garbage that our community sends to Oregon. Many island residents are unaware that the Auction & Rummage Sale isn’t just about selling sweet little side tables and barely-used skis. It’s about processing a massive flow of materials that may not come out on the winning side of trash versus treasure.

greaan_team3When the more than 150,000 donated items arrive at Woodward Middle School during preparation week, Rotarians and volunteers sort the donations for distribution to one of the Auction & Rummage Sale’s 36 departments. There, department managers evaluate which items will sell, which items need to be cleaned or repaired before they are sold, and which items must be repurposed or recycled.

The Auction & Rummage Sale would not exist without the community’s astonishingly generous donations. While a gift horse should not have to endure a dental examination, some of the donations that come in are somewhat baffling: guns and other weapons, boxes of hazardous material, pornography, personal massager collections, diaper bags stocked with soiled diapers, garbage cans still loaded with garbage, miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam of unclear origin or purpose. The Green Team is the ninja crew that deals with these items and the many thousands of pounds of materials that aren’t salable, ensuring that every item is rehomed or properly recycled if possible.

This extraordinary commitment to reducing waste began nearly a decade ago, when Auction & Rummage Sale volunteers Liesl Athans and Rebecca Rockefeller were horrified by what they saw in the dumpsters during preparation week that wasn’t, in their opinion, garbage. At that time, given the limitations on volunteer hours and sweat equity, any item deemed unsalable was simply thrown away. Athans and Rockefeller determined to change that reflex based on three guiding tenets: Not all items deemed unsalable were garbage; recycling efforts needed to be increased; and lastly, after the Auction & Rummage Sale event, something productive needed to be done with the items that hadn’t sold.
Athans and Rockefeller began physically intercepting Rotarians and volunteers taking items to the dumpsters. They gave each department a recycling bin and a box for items deemed unsalable. Then Rotarian Joanne Ellis and her friend Dawn Snider drafted a list of nonprofits that might benefit from taking unsold goods after the event. Several large organizations became regular recipients, including Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity. green_Team4Recycling of the obvious materials (cardboard, glass, metal) was deemed a priority. Within a couple of years, the number of dumpsters hauled away with unusable donations was cut in half. Mindsets began to change—in large part because Green Team volunteers were actually doing the hard work, not just complaining about the waste while expecting someone else to do something.

Of course, less garbage going into dumpsters meant less money spent on disposal and more money for the Rotary Club to invest in worthy causes on Bainbridge Island and beyond. Tom McCloskey, Rotarian and 2015 Island Citizen of the Year, has been at the helm of the Auction & Rummage Sale for three years running. “As chair,” McCloskey says, “I’m always trying to figure out how to get more money to give away. So while sustainability is crucial, having more cash to invest in our community is a huge motivator.”

Susie Burdick is executive director of the Kids Discovery Museum on Bainbridge Island and president-elect of the Bainbridge Island Rotary Club. “The Green Team represents the sustainable drive of this community. We value our resources,” says Burdick. “Many of the 1,400 volunteers at the Auction & Rummage Sale are kids. We have a responsibility to steward our young people—and here’s a fabulous opportunity to show them how to do the right thing. This effort epitomizes what Rotary does: effect positive change, model these practices for our youth, and equip the next generation to continue making the world a better place—for all of us. The ripple effect is enormous.”

Step into the LOO

When Rotarian Sarah Albee first worked at the Auction & Rummage Sale five years ago, she was assigned to the fine furniture tent. It wasn’t her strong suit. “Before long,” Albee recalls, “someone recognized that I would be better at assessing castoffs than fine furniture. With Joanne Ellis stepping down, they needed a Rotarian to chair this unwieldy effort to reduce waste. Albee is quick to point out that when she took over the Green Team, it was handed to her “tied in a bow.” While there was progress to be made, the project was carefully organized into binders and lists—and she inherited a seasoned group of hard-working, eager volunteers. “Some were passionate about recycling; some about reuse,” Albee recalls. “My job was to continue to integrate the Green Team into the Auction & Rummage Sale machine as much as possible.”
The hub of the Green Team’s efforts is the brilliantly named Lawn of Opportunity, or LOO, the area at Woodward Middle School set aside for sorting donations that cannot or will not be sold at the Auction & Rummage Sale. Throughout the weeklong donation drop-off and preparation period, Green Team members work 12-hour days sorting, recycling, and identifying possible repurposes for these materials, keeping them out of the landfill to the greatest extent possible. green_Team5Diane Landry, head of the Zero Waste Initiative for Sustainable Bainbridge and 2015’s “Person of the Year” award winner, leads the Green Team’s recycling efforts. “If it’s a stretchy resealable bag, someone is actually going to rip the zipper off—that part isn’t recyclable—and recycle the bag. This is the level we’re working at,” Albee says.

Green team members recognized that many of the items that seemed like miscellaneous discards—travel-size toiletries, candle stubs, wine corks, coat hangers, single wine glasses—actually had value in the aggregate. Each year, long time team-member Jane Martin compiles a list of the various people and organizations that can make use of these sorted items. A church wants candle stubs, a winery wants corks, teachers want Happy Meal toys to use as prizes, and homeless shelters want toiletries. Martin starts each pre-sale week with a list of three or four people who want to turn unsalable skis for into furniture. Last year, a local artist who wanted old lampshades for a project ended up with 45 unsalable shades—and was thrilled. “The entire Wilkes School Bingo Night is stocked with prizes from the LOO and Buy Nothing Bainbridge,” Albee notes. “And the kids love it.”

Volunteers spend hours working with the massive piles of uncoupled plastic food storage containers, painstakingly matching the lids to the bottoms. Other volunteers triage wooden picture frames, separating burnable and non-burnable wood. And not all of these efforts are utilitarian. Last year, 18-year-old metal artist Greg Millican crafted a spectacular sculpture comprised entirely of the scrap metal he sourced from the recycling bin. The sculpture, entitled “Hawks Bell,” was auctioned off and the proceeds were added to the Auction & Rummage Sale’s tally. This year, Millican will be back, working his artful magic.

Albee and her Green Team co-chair Deb Rudnick research and update the list of waste-streams throughout the year, staying in touch with a database of interested organizations and individuals. Anyone looking for items that might be deemed unsalable—or that simply don’t sell—is encouraged to register as a Harvester online. “People think they have to be an acknowledged charity to get access to this stuff—and they don’t. But they absolutely have to register with us ahead of time so that we can accommodate whatever it is they’re looking for,” explains Albee. Last year, more than 55 individuals and organizations filed Harvester requests—and most of them ended up with the items they were looking for.

When Less Is More

The day after the Auction & Rummage Sale, anything not sold, rehomed, or recycled goes into a fleet of Bainbridge Disposal crusher trucks. It is hard to watch and often a surprise to the public. The good news is that the Green Team rescued everything it possibly could. Albee understands that from the outside, the extraordinary work of the Green Team is invisible. “Given our constraints of time and space, we are doing everything that we possibly can to find homes or recycle these things,” Albee says. “Anyone who wants to help us do more is warmly encouraged to join our team of volunteers. green_teamThere’s a signup form right on our website.”

When Albee joined the Green Team, the Rotary Club was spending more than $17,000 on disposal costs for the annual Auction & Rummage Sale. For the past three years, that amount has been whittled down by almost 30%. That savings represents tons of materials that aren’t going to the landfill.

This coming June, you’ll find Albee at Woodward Middle School working hard at the Green Team desk, under the recycling tent, and in the LOO, alongside fellow Rotarian Judy Romann and the Green Team crew of volunteers. “While I’m not great at assessing the real value of things like fine furniture,” Albee notes, “I have a much easier time seeing the value of the Green Team. Just because Rotary couldn’t sell it a particular donated item doesn’t mean that it didn’t find a new purpose. Every re-homed or recycled donation is a win—a win for the donor, a win for the recipient, a win for the environment, and a win for Rotary.”

As Tom McCloskey observes: “Nobody works harder than the Green Team.” And McCloskey offers a tidbit of unsolicited advice to the next chair of the Auction & Rummage Sale: “Hold on to Sarah Albee as long as you can.”

The 2016 Auction & Rummage Sale will take place on Saturday, July 2, from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm. For information on making a donation, volunteering, preview night, and other details visit www.bainbridgerotaryauction.org.