Throwing Away Old Ideas

As Cultures and Generations Shift, Environmentally Friendly Practices Get Upcycled

By Margarita Raycheva | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 07.22.15 – Feature, History, Lifestyles

Frederick resident Heather Raffa loves playing with trash—. Give her some blown-out light bulbs or empty baby food jars and she will turn them into quirky Christmas ornaments. In Raffa’s hands, thrift store spoons and forks transform into funky bejeweled bracelets and the tape from discarded audio cassettes gets knitted into reusable shopping bags..She even figured out how to make a garden bench from an old satellite TV dish.

For the mother of two whose background is in graphic design, it’s all about discovering new beauty—even function—in objects that otherwise would be destined for the trash. “I was always the kind of person that likes to use things up. To me it’s almost like a puzzle,” says Raffa who has sold some of her creations at Sisters Corners Emporium in Downtown Frederick.

For Raffa, and a growing number of Frederick County residents, giving new purpose to useless and discarded items, or “upcycling,” is a creative outlet that has the added benefit of preventing junk from going into the landfill. As awareness of environmental issues continues to grow, more and more residents and businesses are starting to look at trash as a resource. While some are taking a creative approach in reusing old things, from restoring old bikes to turning wedding gowns into children’s clothes, others are just looking for new ways to reduce their waste or at least dispose of it responsibly.

“The biggest change has been in the perception of recycling,” says Brian Schlar, president of Reliable Recycling Center, which has been operating in Frederick County for nearly a century. “We used to be perceived as a dirty industry.”

Though the Schlar family has been running the business for four generations, the general public never really understood what it does, Schlar says. But in the last 10 to 15 years, people have started to see recycling in a more positive light and are now asking questions and learning about the role that the business plays in transforming metal waste into new goods. “People are starting to realize that if we weren’t here, all these things would end up on the side of the road or in the landfill,” he says.

“I see it as an opportunity”

Unlike traditional recycling—or “down-cycling”—where bottles, cans or paper are broken down and transformed into products of lesser quality, upcycling adds value to discarded objects by transforming or repurposing them for a new use.

At Repurposed & Refined, owners Denise Nolan and Bobbi Morris are selling furniture castoffs that have been salvaged and transformed into unique pieces for the home. Items in the store come from a variety of sources, including yard sales and Craigslist, Morris says. “Some were literally dumped for us on the sidewalk,” she says.

Nolan and Morris, who started their business in Hagerstown and opened a second shop in Downtown Frederick in 2013, offer workshops that teach aspiring upcyclers how to use different painting techniques and finishes to transform even the most battered piece of furniture.

Old furniture, however, is not the only thing that can be upcycled and restored for a new life.

Upcycling adds value to discarded objects by transforming or repurposing them for a new use..

At Gravel and Grind, a coffee and bike shop that opened in March on South Carroll Street, owners James Johnson and Tracy Hatthaway are restoring 20- and 30-year-old bicycles and putting them back on the road. The business, which also sells new bikes and equipment, refurbishes classic steel bikes, making them more usable and safe to ride. “We have always been interested in how well old bikes are made. A well-built old bike is often of a higher quality than a new bike,” Johnson says.

Customers can bring in their own old bike and have it modified to fit their needs. Or they can exchange an old bike, regardless of its condition, for store credit that can be applied to the purchase of a different bike at the shop. The shop currently holds an inventory of 15 bikes that have been built from salvaged parts and restored for new life. “Everyone recycles today,” Johnson says. “We just do this because we love bikes.”

Upcycling is hardly a new concept. In the 1930s and 1940s, when raw materials were rare and expensive, families would reuse and recycle items they already had until they were no longer useful.  What is new, however, is the increased interest in products that are environmentally friendly and also not mass-produced. On Etsy, an online marketplace selling handcrafted items, the number of items tagged with the word “upcycled” has skyrocketed from 7,900 in 2010 to more than 300,000 today, according to

Companies like TerraCycle are taking the concept to a whole new level. Founded in 2001 by a Princeton freshman, the company has become a global business specializing in converting trash into everyday objects. TerraCycle buys traditionally non-recyclable items, such as drink pouches and snack wrappers, from schools and other large groups and transforms them into pencil cases, backpacks and totes.

With thousands of do-it-yourself tutorials available online, it is easier than ever to find inspiration for upcycling. Maranda Weddle, 23, finds dozens of project ideas on Pinterest and scours thrift stores and yard sales for cheap materials. “I don’t see it as junk or trash. I see it as an opportunity,” she says.

Weddle, who works for a Frederick real estate company, says she would much rather reinvent a thrift store treasure than buy the finished product at a mainstream retailer. “It’s much more fun for me to go on a treasure hunt,” Weddle says. “It’s just fun to put my own spin on things.”

Seamstress Joan Jenkins, who has been sewing in Frederick for 35 years, has also seen an increase in clients looking to reinvent old clothes. Some are trying to add a more personal touch to their garments. Others are trying to preserve the memory of relatives who passed away by turning their clothes into toys for children and grandchildren. “People get attached to their things,” Jenkins says. “Some people bring bags of stuff to be refashioned.”

Over the years, Jenkins has transformed old wedding gowns into everything from evening dresses to christening gowns. One Frederick bride got married in May in a gown that Jenkins constructed from elements in the wedding dresses of the bride’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.

“Its not going to end up in a landfill”

The expansion of Frederick County’s recycling program since it started as a pilot program in 1991 and particularly with the introduction of single-stream recycling in 2009 has helped promote better environmental stewardship among local residents. As of 2013, the county’s waste diversion rate was 54.5 percent, says Annmarie Creamer, recycling outreach program coordinator at the Frederick County Department of Solid Waste Management. The goal is to divert 60 percent of the county’s waste through composting, recycling and other eco-friendly practices by 2025, Creamer says.

But there is still room for improvement. According to the county Office of Recycling, the community continues to generate more than 1,035,000 pounds of waste every day. “Throwing something away is very convenient, but it is also permanent,” Creamer says. “In the past it may have seemed simple to just throw things away, but it’s getting harder to figure out where ‘away’ is.”

“People are starting to realize that if we weren’t here, all these things would end up on the side of the road or in the landfill.”

County officials encourage residents to donate their unwanted items to organizations such as the Frederick Rescue Mission, Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. Unlike other charitable organizations of its kind, the ReStore accepts donation of large items, including home appliances, siding, kitchen cabinets, tiles and other building materials. “We are the Goodwill of Lowe’s and Home Depot,” says Ron Cramer, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County.

Before moving to its current location Downtown four years ago, ReStore was located near the Frederick Fairgrounds and shoppers were mostly builders and contractors. Today, it has turned into a haven for an increasingly younger crowd of upcycling enthusiasts who are turning old windows into greenhouses and building tables from vintage sewing machines. “We have seen a tremendous number of people looking to recycle and looking to repurpose,” says Cramer.

The projects have been so creative that shoppers are asked to email photos of their creations, which are posted on an inspiration board near the store’s entrance. “People are getting back to doing things with their hands,” says ReStore donation manager Dean Jacoby. “The younger people are more conscious of the environment.”

At Second Chances Garage, residents can give a new life to their old car if they donate it to the nonprofit that refurbishes vehicles and places them with local low-income families. The organization is one of only two vehicle donation programs in Maryland that actually refurbishes donated cars, as opposed to just auctioning them off, according to the group’s founder Rick Trawick. “We make every effort to refurbish those vehicles,” Trawick says. “That is two tons of waste at a time that we keep out of the landfill.”

Trawick’s organization welcomes any donated vehicle. Luxury brands and other high-maintenance vehicles are typically auctioned off to generate revenues. If a vehicle cannot be brought back to life, it gets used as parts for other cars and is then sent to local salvage dealers. Typically, about a third of the vehicles that come to Trawick end up with qualifying individuals, and since it was established in 2010, Second Chances Garage has provided 65 vehicles to local residents.

The organization even collects and separately recycles antifreeze, used motor oil, scrap metals and tires. Because of its eco-friendly and low-waste practices, last year the organization received the county’s Business Waste Reduction and Recycling Award.

“In the past it may have seemed simple to just throw things away—but it’s getting harder to figure out where ‘away’ is.”

At e-End, officials boast of a secure and eco-friendly way to dispose of unwanted electronics. The Frederick company can recycle any kind of electronics, including computers, printers, old cell phones, stereos, TVs and DVD players. The business adheres to a strict zero-landfill policy for e-waste, which can leak toxic chemicals into the environment, says David Frederick, e-End’s director for marketing. Whenever possible, old electronics are refurbished and sold online. Whatever remains is broken down into parts that are individually sent out to be recycled. “Every piece that comes to us will be recycled in some form,” Frederick says.

The company is also certified in secure data destruction, so no personal information can ever be retrieved from old phones and computers. In addition to private individuals, the business works with government contractors and medical companies, who need to destroy sensitive information, Frederick says. “There are a lot of companies that offer data destruction,” he says. “But people who come to us are here because they know that it is not going to end up in a landfill.”

“It’s all about changing habits”

The City of Brunswick has gone a step further in an effort to encourage residents to donate, rather than trash, their unused items. It has started a partnership with Goodwill Industries, in which the organization picks up residents’ donations right at their homes. Brunswick is one of only two cities in Maryland to participate in Goodwill’s Curbside Pickup program.

For Mayor Karin Tome, an outspoken environmental advocate, better environmental stewardship often hinges on convenience. Frederick County’s future would be much greener if every trash can were paired with a recycling bin, Tome says. “The golden rule is to have a recycling bin next to the trash can, that is Recycling 101,” she says.

An ideal scenario would be three trash cans—one for trash, one for recycling, and one for composting. When Vancouver, Canada, started using that model, the city reduced curbside trash collection to once in two weeks, Tome says. “The three bins is where we need to go, but we need a commercial compost facility,” she says.

“The golden rule is to have a recycling bin next to the trash can, that is Recycling 101.”

Until such a facility comes to Frederick County, there are simple strategies that anyone can use to help eliminate unnecessary waste in our community, such as always using reusable grocery bags, bringing your own travel mug when you get coffee, avoiding purchasing heavily packaged products and buying in bulk.

At the Common Market cooperative in Frederick, for example, customers buying loose items in bulk can bring their own container. The containers are weighed at the register, so customers don’t pay extra for the packaging. “It is all about rethinking the way we do things,” Tome says. “It is all about changing habits and people are creatures of habit. It is hard.”

Raffa, the woman who can make something out of almost anything, and her family are trying to live eco-friendly, even though it is not always easy. They have reusable water bottles and mugs, and they use Mason jars for food storage instead of plastic containers. The family also composts all their food scraps and organic waste and makes sure that every piece of loose paper in the home is used on both sides before hitting the recycling bin.

Though she tries to buy as many groceries in bulk as possible, some individually packaged fruit snacks always manage to sneak in. “If I lived by myself, I would buy everything in bulk,” says Raffa. “But it is tough when you have a family.”

In the grand scheme of things, the family’s efforts may seem like a drop in the bucket. But Raffa has definitely been a role model for her two daughters. Sixteen-year-old Christie Raffa loves refashioning thrift store clothes, and she worries about the lack of recycling bins in her school cafeteria. “I don’t know if it bothers anyone else but it bothers me,” she says.