The Impact of the Reuse Movement with Community Recycling’s Ira Baseman

November 21, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us today Ira Baseman. He’s the President of Community Recycling. Welcome to Green is Good, Ira. IRA BASEMAN: Thank you very much, John. I appreciate the opportunity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Ira, before we get talking about all the important great work you’re doing at Community Recycling, can you share with our listeners a little bit about the Ira Baseman journey and story leading up to getting involved with Community Recycling? IRA BASEMAN: Absolutely. I think it’s really best described as sort of having the entrepreneurial DNA. I was raised in a household where my father was involved in many different businesses along the way, and it wasn’t anything that wasn’t possible. There was always a new opportunity, always a new business interest, and I learned at a very young age about making things possible. And that really has been in my thinking from day one. Despite the fact that I was encouraged and maybe coerced is the wrong word to go into a professional degree practicing law and working in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia with a large corporate law firm, I had always harnessed and harbored the entrepreneurial spirit. It was after sort of the reality struck that practicing law was not my long-term interest, I decided to seek other opportunities. I thereafter went into the home building business, joining a large publicly traded luxury home-building company, where I was really given a business education. I had come through the legal world, but in very short order, I was given the tools and resources to learn what it meant to succeed in the business world. I spent seven years doing that. I did a lot of great things for that company, but realized at the end of the day that it was not mine, and so I sought after something different. I left that company with the idea that I was going to build my own company, and thereafter, I started a tech company in the first dot com revolution, which was a venture backed company that grew rapidly and was going to the moon. Certainly, that was everybody’s expectation, but, as the world knows, the market corrected. We sold the company, fortunately, before too long, and I was back into the world of building my next invention, as it were, which started with the entry into the clothing recycling world through the establishment of a thrift store in Philadelphia. This goes back about 15 years. I had this desire to create something new and different for the retail thrift community, professionally managed, clean, beautifully designed and an ultimate experience around thrift shopping, really changing the way people think about thrift. This goes back to the time when people were still accustomed to dark, dingy thrift stores. The thrift business was exciting to build, but the retail world was certainly not one that I was more or less inclined to. I ended up gaining a great deal of experience about that industry and learning about the whole industry, the entire life cycle, from the recycler’s side all the way through to the end user, the recipient of that material, whether at the thrift store or elsewhere around the world. I sold the thrift to Goodwill, and proceeded to focus on what I thought was really the most fascinating part of the business, which was the acquisition of material, the engagement of recycling, sort of on a global scale. That was the birth of Community Recycling. It’s been a journey, and one that I have been passionate about for the last 14 years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love your tagline, People Recycling for People. IRA BASEMAN: Thank you very much. It really informs everything that we do. It is the most fundamental concept that is really lost on many people when you think about recycling. The most traditional recycling is paper, glass, plastic, and certainly now in our world other good stuff that we recycle. But there is inherent in clothing, shoes, and accessories and the like, the opportunity of connecting people, of really making a difference, not only in your local community, not only in our country, but across the world, by inviting people to think about reuse, inviting people to think about the life cycle of their favorite shoe or favorite shirt, and it is ultimately about people. That concept of focusing on people, humanizing recycling, informs everything we think about and everything we do, from social media all the way through, the engagement we have with recyclers all over the country and around the world to the recipients of that material. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. For our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Ira Baseman. He’s the founder of Community Recycling. To learn more about his great business, go to www.communityrecycling.biz. I’m on your website now. It is beautiful. Ira, share a little bit about your definition of the reuse movement, so our listeners understand. When you say reuse movement, what do you mean by that? IRA BASEMAN: Reuse is the most powerful and impactful part of the recycling triangle. When we think about reuse, let’s think about the value that that has economically, environmentally and personally or socially. The idea of reuse is that we have, as a country, certainly, the opportunities that many others don’t, and we are blessed with affordable clothing, affordable shoes, and the like. The ideas that this material that we take for granted has life and has opportunity well beyond our short engagement with it, and it’s about the opportunity of creating a relationship through recycling. It’s about building the connection of recycler and recipient through reuse. Reuse is a personal connection, but it also has the most impact environmentally. From a carbon footprint standpoint, reuse is the most powerful. The EPA just recently came out with a study that clothing recycling is equivalent to taking, on an annual basis, about a million cars off the road every year. It is more impactful to the environment than plastic and glass recycling combined. Reuse is the glue that holds together what we do, and it is more important than anything else in teaching people about the impact. It’s about really bringing to the fore the value that we are building environmentally and economically and personally. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. What are some of the programs? When you say community recycling, explain some of the siloed programs, the engagement programs that you offer at your company. IRA BASEMAN: Sure. Over the last several years, we’ve developed a portfolio of programs that really fall into four different categories, as it were. The oldest of them, and the one that really has gained some really fantastic visibility and traction, pardon the pun, is a program that we started a couple years ago called Shoebox Recycling. Shoebox Recycling is a program that really marries the concept of the note in the bottle to shoe recycling. So, what we’ve done is we’ve created a program that allows and invites people to go to our website, print off a note that has a unique identifier, put that note with a story about your experience with your shoes, anything that you’d like to write, put that note in the shoe, box up the shoes, print off a free shipping label, and deliver that box back to Community Recycling. That box travels around the world, and we are inviting recipients of those shoes to go online, take that note, and that website notifies us that your “solemate” has been found. It has been a fantastic experience. We have taken the idea of recycling and reuse to a totally different level by really inviting people to share a story, building engagement in a very different way. To date, we’ve recycled probably close to a million-and-a-half pounds of shoes throughout the United States. We’ve touched every state in the union, and we have managed to create relationships with thousands of organizations, from Girl Scout troops to Fortune 500 companies. So, Shoebox Recycling is really a pivotal moment in our development, and certainly represents one of the more exciting programs that we’ve created. The second program that we’ve created is called CR Kids. It’s an entire recycling experience that’s delivered to K-5 elementary schools, primarily. What we’ve designed is we’ve put together a program with the national company called Pods, which is a storage unit that is placed at the school. It’s branded with Community Recycling. We provide curriculum, we provide bags, we provide a recycled world map, a one-of-a-kind recycled world map that we’ve had specially designed and created. Each one is unique. The schools are given that map. The schools are invited to engage in the recycling and reuse movement, and if they hit a certain target of recycling, which is 5,000 lbs., we provide the school with an iPad. We’ve partnered with Skype in the Classroom to connect that school with a classroom around the world where the recycling ends up. So it’s about connecting cultures, it’s about teaching children about the value of reuse, and it’s about building a personal engagement that is really unparalleled in our industry. The third example is CR Campus. This is a program that we’ve designed around the college community. Remarkably, over the last couple of years, student groups have come out of the woodwork. It’s a fantastic experience. We’ve seen the college kids get really involved in sustainability. It’s not just the facilities management on campus; it’s really the students that make the difference. It’s about community service, it’s about finding a home for all of that stuff on campus, whether in the dorms or the apartments, that should be recycled or reused. So, we put together a program similar to the CR Kids program, where we set up on campus, invite the kids to participate, and we manage to do that from Harvard down through Georgia Tech and into the middle of the country. It’s a fantastic experience, and all these college kids are delighted to participate. We also provide them with our recycled world map as well. The fourth program, and really the one that I’m most excited about, is called CR Home. CR Home is really intended as the most direct relationship and the most direct experience that we can create for every individual consumer recycler. Through our website, we’ve invited everybody to join the reuse movement by participating individually by going online, printing a free shipping label, taking a box, filling it with shoes, clothes, and accessories. That is with a free shipping label, sent back to Community Recycling. In that process, we’re providing to each individual a personal sustainability report. Everybody will be provided with a detailed dashboard as the environmental impact that they’re having to their community, in addition to which, we’re going to track that box of recyclables from your home all the way around the world to the 50 countries, including the United States, in which we manage relationships. So we’re going to provide you with a personal sustainability report and tracking to teach you where your stuff goes, and invite you to learn and understand what the impact that you’re having, both locally and globally. It is an experience that is unparalleled in our industry, and is a direct engagement with the consumer recycler. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Unbelievable. Ira, I’m blown away about all the unique paradigms and collaborations you’ve created. Can you share a little bit of some wow numbers with our listeners, in terms of, for instance, how many tons of clothing does Community Recycling recycle and repurpose every day? IRA BASEMAN: Let me just start by putting this in context. It is estimated that every individual in our country discards approximately 70 pounds per year, which is 22 billion pounds of clothing, shoes, and accessories that are put into the waste stream. That is an enormous amount of material. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let me be clear. Seventy pounds of textiles a year. IRA BASEMAN: Precisely. Seventy pounds per person per year, so equivalent to 22 billion pounds per year, only 15% of which are recycled. There’s a huge opportunity for change in our thinking, and a huge opportunity for everybody to make a simple difference by just thinking about the opportunity and thinking about what reuse can mean. As it relates to Community Recycling today, we manage to recycle on a weekly basis somewhere between a million to a million-and-a-half pounds per week, which is significant, certainly, but it is not by any means, in the context of what the opportunity is, as meaningful as we’d like to be. We are dedicated to that task. It’s really inviting more people to participate in the reuse movement and really educating everybody about the value of reuse. It’s not just unique to Community Recycling; it’s evident in our relationships that we enjoy with our partners. A lot of the companies that we’re working with and a lot of the retailers and large organizations are now talking more about sustainability than ever before, so it’s really raising awareness across the landscape. We want just to be part of that dialogue. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last three minutes, unfortunately, but can you then segue into that topic? How do we get textile recycling to be top of the mind, as traditional top of the mind, as curbside recycling materials such as aluminum, plastic, cardboard, and others? IRA BASEMAN: Sure. This is the great challenge that we tackle every day. First and foremost, it’s about raising awareness, and raising awareness is happening through a lot of different avenues, social media, traditional media, companies are talking about it. We are certainly out on the ground every day making a difference. Second, and really a key component to the recycling period, whether reuse or otherwise, is convenience. It’s certainly meaningful in everything we’re doing. We’re trying to make every program that we have as convenient as possible. Third, it’s about engagement. It’s about an experience that we’re building around the human personal act. The simple act of recycling can make a huge difference. So, marrying all those items together, awareness, convenience, engagement, is all about making a difference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. I like it. Name, please, the sustainable retailers that are involved with you, and what are some of the benefits to the retailers in terms of collaborating with Community Recycling and getting involved more with the reuse movement? IRA BASEMAN: We recently launched the CR Home program through our first retailer, called Original Penguin. It’s a brand that is really gaining some recent notoriety, and it’s a tremendous experience. The experience that we’ve built around CR Home for the retailer is very different than what the traditional opportunities have been in the past. No longer is it necessary for the retailer to have a box in the store, a passive, anonymous, untrackable event. We’ve built something that is direct to the consumer, is traceable, is trackable, and is reportable and measurable, and creates an experience that is unique to the individual and is unique to the retailer. That is really the value proposition that we’ve created with CR Home for the retail community. We’re in conversations with a couple of others that I’d rather not talk about at the moment, but it is a dialogue that is happening every day. The retail community is very much engaged. We’re participating in the retail sustainability conference coming up at the end of September, and we have a number of retailers that we’re very excited to talk with there. This is something you’ll see a lot more of in the short term. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. For our listeners to see a lot more of what Ira’s great work is doing at Community Recycling, go to www.communityrecycling.biz. People recycling for people. Thank you, Ira, for being a sustainability visionary in the recycling and reuse of clothing and textiles. You are truly living proof that green is good.