Clarinets to cabinets: Old is new again in thriving reuse economy

Marty Greenwell is a successful financial consultant for several Cincinnati businesses. When he wears Brooks Brothers shirts and Italian silk slacks into the boardroom, no one guesses his secret: he has barely purchased any new clothing in 13 years.

After learning about the poor treatment of clothing workers in developing nations, Greenwell decided, on his 50th birthday, to be part of the solution.

“I went out and bought a bunch of clothes at a thrift store, and I haven’t stopped since,” he says. Along with being a good ethical decision, Greenwell stresses that the clothes he buys now are actually higher quality than the new items he used to purchase.

Over time he’s even gotten his family involved.

“My daughter found her prom dress and homecoming dresses at St. Vincent de Paul,” Greenwell says. “She’s never paid more than five dollars and always gets compliments. It’s like a treasure hunt!”

Marty Greenwell

Greenwell and his family are not alone. Across Greater Cincinnati, people are looking for unique ways to participate in the reuse economy. Neighborhood Facebook pages and websites are populated with alerts from residents seeking to buy, sell or share items with their neighbors. Friends host clothing swap parties, and hundreds of area residents earn extra cash renting rooms in their homes and rides in their cars.

However, Cincinnati’s thirst for thrift extends well beyond hospitality, clothing and household goods. Check out these four other sectors where everything old is new again.

Pleasant Ridge neighbors team up for sustainable creativity

Mary Lennard of Pleasant Ridge loves anything creative. “I was a Montessori teacher and a Girl Scout leader for many years. As home ec programs started to be discontinued, people would say, ‘Mary, can you find a use for these supplies?’ and I always did.”

Lennard’s neighbor, Beth Meuthing, has a passion for sustainability: “I believe in having the smallest ecological footprint that I possibly can.”

Mary Lennard (left) and Beth Muething

Last summer, the two friends joined forces to create Scrap it Up — a nonprofit creative reuse center that promotes sustainability and creativity by keeping arts and crafts supplies out of landfills and in the hands of creators.

Scrap It Up’s 850-square-foot storefront, located next to the Pleasant Ridge Community Center, is stocked floor to ceiling with knitting yarn, fabric, paints and canvases, scrapbooking materials and beads. They also have a shelf full of cigar boxes, a display of pre-owned greeting cards and a huge bucket of tennis racquet cording, among other things.

The store’s clientele is as diverse as its contents. After opening in July, the first few weeks saw an overjoyed art student purchasing armloads of school supplies for $30, a quilter from Lawrenceburg discovering a new fabric source and a little boy who hates being dragged to arts and craft stores gaining a new perspective.

“This isn’t just an arts and crafts store,” Lennard told the boy. “This is a store for inventors.” His eyes lit up at that idea. He found a ruler with a hinge and begged his mom to buy it so he could turn it into a fidget spinner.

This is exactly the result Lennard and Meuthing were hoping for. “Cost should not be a barrier to creativity,” Meuthing says. “We want to get kids thinking, ‘What could we do with this?’”

To that end, Scrap It Up also offers classes (in collaboration with the Kennedy Heights Art Center) that spark creativity and help creators see the artistic possibilities available by repurposing materials.

Looking for more creative-reuse options? Check out Indigo Hippo on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. In addition to arts/crafts thrift, the store provides artistic curriculum in association with Camp Joy, MORTAR entrepreneurial hub and the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Both Scrap It Up and Indigo Hippo gladly accept donations of arts and craft supplies and other items that could be used to spark creative expression.

Building surplus centers divert tons from local landfills

Approximately 40 percent of the solid waste in landfills comes from construction and demolition projects, according to consumer information group Earth911. Northside reuse center Building Value aims to change that statistic, while at the same time providing job-training opportunities and saving consumers money.

A social enterprise of Easter Seals, Building Value provides sustainable deconstruction of buildings, salvaging usable materials from the projects for resale. The organization also trains and employs workers who are overcoming employment barriers that include low education levels, disabilities and criminal records.

David Rich

“We save approximately 250 tons of materials per year from going to the landfill,” says Building Value Director David Rich. He adds that this number doesn’t include another five million pounds of concrete that was removed last year from a project for the Metropolitan Sewer District. The concrete was crushed and repurposed as road base for paving projects. “The cost for our deconstruction services is similar to that of for-profit companies,” Rich adds, “but we can offer a big tax deduction on top of that.”

The salvaged products are sold at Building Value’s retail store at up to 75 percent off the cost of purchasing similar items new. Consumers can find everything from chandeliers to toilets, but lumber and doors are among their most popular offerings. Along with salvaged items, the store sells donations received from homeowners, contractors and even from IKEA, which donates its kitchen displays whenever they are changed out.

“I probably visit (Building Value and similar businesses) at least 2-3 times per week,” says real estate investor, landlord and rehabber Tony Stroud. “The old stuff was handmade and one-of-a-kind, so once it’s gone, it’s gone. A brand new house with a couple of old pieces really makes a difference in how the house feels.”

Professionals like Stroud make up the biggest percentage of Building Value’s clientele, but Rich says in addition to homeowners and local residents, a growing number of “Pinterest people” have begun frequenting the store in recent years. “They are repurposing these materials like doors, cabinets and windows into furniture, giving them new life. We love seeing that.”

Another source for resale building products is Cincinnati’s ReUse Center in Fairmount. It also sells donated building-grade products, but instead of focusing on salvage, it often sells overstocked items donated by companies like Home Depot.

One-of-a-kind toys (that won’t break the bank)

Each year, countless adults search for the perfect toys for the children in their life, only to find them in pieces under the couch a couple months later, discarded and forgotten. But Cincinnati’s Toy Lab helps these once-loved playthings make a comeback.

For $10, patrons can choose pre-owned toy parts and fuse them together in new configurations to create one-of-a-kind toys. The toymakers are also encouraged to give their unique creations names and super powers, then have a photo of their toy added to Toy Lab’s online toy gallery.

“We have just as many adults who come make toys as kids,” founder Tommy Reuff says. “It’s geared toward both.”

To date, more than 13,000 toys have found new life through Toy Lab, saving four tons of plastic from landfills. Better yet, all the proceeds from Toy Lab support Happen, Inc., a Northside nonprofit that provides art, service, science and technology opportunities for families that allow parents and children to bond through creative endeavors.

“If you’re working together you’re going to learn together, and you leave with a memory,” says Reuff. “We hope to be able to do that for generation after generation.”

For those more interested in buying and selling pre-owned toys in their original forms, visit Oh Smiley’s Dolls and Collectibles in Mt. Washington, offering vintage and modern collectible toys. Also, check out Once Upon a Child’s nine Cincinnati and Dayton stores, which sell gently used clothing and toys for up to 70 percent off retail price. Once Upon a Child is a for-profit business, but it donates items it's unable to sell to nonprofit thrift stores.

Repurposed musical instruments make a joyful noise

As fourth graders across the city are introduced to band instruments for the first time, many parents cringe at the thought of both the sour notes and the big price tags this new adventure will entail. In response, music stores across the region are working to ease at least the cost burden for parents.

Western Hills Music takes instrument reuse one step further by donating refurbished instruments to students in need.

“People would come in occasionally after cleaning out their house,” recalls lesson director Liz Milano. “They’d have old instruments and say, ‘Do you have a use for this?’”

Liz Milano

The staff started accepting, repairing and cleaning these instruments — and then finding them new homes. That is how the store’s signature program, Putting Instruments into Children’s Hands (PITCH) came to be. Milano has developed relationships with music teachers in schools across the city, and they let her know when a student is in need.

One donation particularly stands out. “I’ve gotten to know a teacher from Delshire Elementary,” Milano says. “She has a lot of kids who can’t afford anything. We took four or five violins over, and the students were so excited. I love that this program opens children’s eyes to music.”

Western Hills Music gives away approximately 20-30 instruments annually, but would love to donate many more. “We want to get the word out,” Milano says. “It’s great to hear stories from donors about their much-loved instruments and to be able to give those instruments new life."

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Read more articles by Holly End.

Holly End is a freelance writer and published author from Pleasant Ridge.