Cincinnati Recycling and Reuse Hub turns trash into treasure for local nonprofits

What do you get when you combine a year of quarantine, four feet of snow (followed by gorgeous spring weather), and the usual springtime urge to de-clutter and organize?

You get a mountain of junk that seems to have nowhere to go.

Eco-conscious Cincinnatians often feel conflicted about throwing things away that might have a use somewhere, or tossing recyclables in the trash that aren’t accepted by local facilities for processing. Even if the items we purge end up at the standard donation centers, their future is uncertain. Warehouses can house only so much stock. Only quality items in good condition will resell. Some stuff just isn’t usable anymore. Or is it?

Mt. St. Joseph University Chemistry Lab Manager Colleen McSwiggin has always taken her role in the organization and execution of electronics recycling events seriously. She has also kept a watchful eye on other local, eco-friendly projects throughout the years.  Over time, she has networked her way into forming an association of Cincinnati natives who are experts at finding things to do with different types of unwanted items.

These likeminded individuals of various backgrounds have worked together to develop Cincinnati Recycling and Reuse Hub (CRRH) a receiving warehouse with a detailed allocation system for all types of discarded things. From clothing to computer monitors to carpet samples, Cincinnati Recycling and Reuse Hub will sort and properly distribute practically anything as long as it’s clean — beginning April 1st.

The conscientious desire to get rid of refuse while working toward sustainability has grown vastly in recent years as McSwiggin, managing director for the fledgling, volunteer-operated, CRRH has seen firsthand.

She describes an electronics recycling drop-off event at Oak Hills High School in 2019 that she felt was call to action: “We had 764 cars through the line in three-and-a-half hours. We filled five semis and I still had 150 people in line. And that was kind of the moment where I thought, ‘Ok, we’ve got to find a better way to do this.’ The only way that I could see doing that was having a permanent location, where if we had overflow, we’d have someplace to put it until another truck could come.”

CRRH was formed from four different temporary programs including TerraCycle and ZeroLandfill Cincinnati. After connecting with people from these organizations, McSwiggin noticed that she wasn’t the only one running into problems with space.

I found Carrie (Harms), and she put something out on the ZeroLandfill page. And that’s kind of how we found everybody else,” explains McSwiggin.

Harms now serves as Associate Director for CRRH. An interior designer, Harms specialized in finding people and organizations interested in reusing design project samples of different materials.

“(ZeroLandfill) found there was so much to sort that they had to end up throwing things away anyway,” says McSwiggin. Similarly, TerraCycle was collecting squeezy applesauce packets, yogurt tubes, empty deodorant packaging, and similar items in a basement.

Things were piling up too fast to be managed for many in the area trying to assist with sustainability in any way they could. Joining forces, the group shared information with one another about where certain items could be collected and reallocated or recycled. They made extensive lists and began sharing resources. Things began coming together.

“Crayons to Computers gets all of our school supplies. Art supplies go to Indigo Hippo and Scrap It Up. Shoes go to Soles for Souls. Denim goes to Blue Jeans Go Green. We’ve actually got 24 different nonprofits that we donate to. There’s even a place (I think it’s in Wisconsin), where they will take old trophies, clean them up, and remove the nameplates. They send them to Special Olympics,” says McSwiggin.

RecycleForce of Indianapolis receives and processes the electronics donated to CRRH, symbiotically furthering its organization’s own mission of helping the previously incarcerated get back on their feet.

“We are expanding the nonprofits’ reach. We are expanding the reuse capabilities. We’re expanding the recycling capabilities of the entire region,” explains McSwiggin.

McSwiggin is grateful to have nailed down a warehouse location, but says circumstances could be better. She’s looking toward the future.

“It’s not the best, because we’re on the fourth floor so we’ll have to take everything up in a freight elevator. Right now it’s the best we could do because we could afford it. Our grand plan is to get a larger warehouse space,” says McSwiggin, who is also hoping for a van.

“We actually put in a grant for the Ohio EPA. If we are awarded that grant, we’ll be able to get a pickup and delivery van. Like at restaurants where they give out crayons to kids and the kids use them for five minutes and then they go into garbage — we can set up bins at different places, and then we can set up a route. Every week we’ll pick up everything.”

Beyond that, CRRH is looking to expand the operation with satellite locations throughout the region.

McSwiggin admits she has a lot to manage with overseeing the operation, but says she doesn’t mind.

“We have a lot going on. But we’re trying to save the world, so it’s kind of a big deal,” says McSwiggin. “The more that we can recycle and reuse, the better things will be as far as climate change, and the better the nonprofits will be able to meet their missions as well.”
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.