ANEW Life for Office Furniture

By Matt Baker

It may not happen often, but inspiration sometimes comes in the form of furniture crashing to the pavement.

Having found success as an interior designer, Rose Tourje began to have conversations with a group of others like her who wanted to give back. What came of this effort was a look at industry processes from beginning to end. With the green movement underway, plenty of front end improvements were being implemented, in great part to the leadership role of the USGBC.

Tourje observed, however, that the furniture liquidation step systematically sent useable goods and materials to landfills. This was an area left generally untouched as the green movement was gaining momentum. “For years, it just didn’t dawn on me,” Tourje said. “Later when it did, I chose to believe I couldn’t do much about it.”

That remained her belief until she witnessed the defenestration of furniture from the fifth floor of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. Seeking but finding no alternatives, she sought to create one.

Tourje launched Asset Network for Education Worldwide (ANEW) in the Spring of 2005. Dedicated to repurposing surplus furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) throughout the U.S., the non-profit organization was founded on the principal of shaping social behavior to improve current liquidation practices. This results in reduced landfill disposal, extended FF&E lifecycles and an opportunity for corporations and other institutions to practice social and environmental sustainability.

One half of the equation are the donors: corporations, schools, government offices and other institutions with a surplus of office equipment. On the other side are the recipients: charities, non-profits and public agencies financially constrained from furnishing their work spaces. ANEW matches one with the other.

Donors can be multinational, Fortune 500 companies or small businesses, in the private or public sector. From the likes of Lockheed Martin to Sony Pictures, ANEW has cooperated with organizations of every type. These are the companies that lead the nation in terms of their corporate social responsibility programs, companies that attract and retain a younger workforce who not only seek out but demand these practices.

A project can be of any size; it can consist of one chair or ten, an entire floor or a warehouse. The organization has worked to repurpose the furnishings of up to a million square feet. And ANEW defines FF&E very broadly, encompassing everything from desks to lighting fixtures to dry erase boards. “Anything between the ceiling tile and the carpet,” said Lila Grant, Executive Director with ANEW.

After a donor’s inventory is catalogued, ANEW reviews the options for each item: reselling, repurposing, recycling or recovering energy from waste (EFW). If there’s market value in the inventory, reselling is the priority. After that, the intent is to find a new home for usable furniture and equipment. Photographs and acute descriptions are key to moving material quickly.

There can be a bit of a disconnect between available FF&E and recipient needs, however. The American office has evolved over the past few decades into the stereotypical cube farm: large, high-walled cubbies that sequester employees from one another. These workstations are often in poor shape or incompatible with a potential new home. “Recipients like small stations because they’re in small spaces,” said Grant. “They like low panels because they want to be able to collaborate with each other.”

Donations of surplus FF&E are tax deductible, whether the donor is an individual or corporation. But many organizations who don’t benefit from tax deductions still take part. AARP, for example, can’t take advantage of tax deductions, but used ANEW’s services. In addition to social and environmental betterment, the move gave them a good story to tell both internally to their employees and volunteers, and externally in public relations. “And schools oftentimes will call us as well,” said Tourje. “They have no need for a tax receipt, but they have other reasons to come work with us, from an educational standpoint for instance.”

In addition to a tax receipt for items that have been repurposed, donors can receive documentation towards LEED certification and a social sustainability certificate, listing the tons of material diverted or repurposed.

Financially, sending material to a landfill is the cheapest short term option. But it’s not free. “There’s a cost for dismantling and removal and transportation, even if you’re going to take it to a landfill,” said Grant. “So those are the same numbers that apply to either taking it to a recipient or to a recycler or to waste from energy facility.” This, of course, takes into account only financial costs, not environmental or social ones.

When ANEW determines that a particular piece of inventory is too soiled, damaged or otherwise unserviceable, it is either recycled or processed in an EFW plant. The main goal is to keep the material out of landfills. Furniture with a high wood content, for example, can be especially pernicious. Wood breaks down to create methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas than the typically maligned carbon dioxide.

Currently in the United States, EFW plants create enough energy to power Philadelphia for a year. There are expensive greenhouse gas capturing concerns, but the potential remains enormous. Europeans use it extensively as an energy and landfill solution. Whether through EFW, recycling or reuse, ANEW’s clients have diverted over 1,900 tons of material from landfills since 2006.

In attempting to find a second use for the inventory, ANEW tries to match a recipient and donor within fifty miles of each other, if not closer. This makes the most sense economically and financially.

“One of the things we always have to do is measure by the three legged stool of sustainability: the environment, social equity and economics. If it’s not economically feasible, it will eventually fail,” said Lou Newett, Environmental, Health and Safety Manager with Knoll. The furniture design company recently partnered with ANEW to launch “Full Circle,” a resource recovery program to create the industry’s first comprehensive zero waste initiative.

One of the program’s first actions was to conduct an eight-month survey of furniture recycling trends. The survey found that the easily removed items are taken off, the rest goes to a landfill. Steel, aluminum and corrugated paper are intensively recycled. Beyond that, not much else is. Knoll has for years attempted to balance durability with recycled and/recyclable materials. Their first chair, in fact, was constructed during WWII of gumwood and surplus parachute straps. That balance between durability and ease of reuse can be a delicate one. Some materials, for example, cannot be reused but perhaps recycled. “You can downcylce it, maybe make a park bench out of it,” said Newett. “But you only need so many park benches.”

“I remember as a kid taking a field trip to a landfill. It was an all day trip,” recounted Tourje. “In today’s terms, communities have caught up to those locations.” Hopefully, the landfill closure rate will slow and we won’t have to worry about converting them into parks to be populated with downcycled park benches.

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