ITHACA, N.Y.—Diane Cohen, the executive director of the Finger Lakes ReUse Center, was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Recycling Leadership from the New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (NYSAR3).
The NYSAR3 award is presented to someone who has dedicated years to working on recycling, composting, reuse and other waste prevention efforts, like Cohen. She has been in the material management field since 2001 and facilitated the creation of the Finger Lakes ReUse Center beginning with planning in 2005 and opening its doors three years later.
After managing a program through architectural salvage store Significant Elements in Ithaca aimed at diverting materials that were reusable from ending up in landfills with the mindset of “maximizing waste” — meaning reducing what ends up in landfills — the Significant Elements program received a grant to hire someone who could take the project to a higher level. Cohen was that person.
“I had the good fortune to be able to look at a lot of good models all around the country,” she said. “I’ve been all over borrowing different components and about five years into that, I was saying ‘I’m seeing so much more possibility than what this program I’m managing could absorb.’ Then someone at the county said ‘If only we had a reuse center.’”
A reuse center had been in the Tompkins County long-term plans, in limbo while waiting for the right person to come along to give the project air. Barb Eckstrom, director of Recycling and Materials Management at Tompkins County, pulled Cohen aside one day and asked what she would need to plan a reuse center, later helping coordinate with stakeholders and turning Cohen into the coordinator for the whole project.
Cohen’s overarching question during the three years of planning that went into what the ReUse Center is today: how to utilize the materials they had to leverage more impact on the community.
In the same vein, Cohen’s grasp on how other communities were managing their reuse centers aided by research done by Cornell University and the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce focused its question on what motivated individuals within the community to reuse, donate and purchase from the center.
The findings were that convenience and affordability were the top priorities, so those were the foundational concepts the center adopted: Have hours the community finds convenient, like being open seven days a week; and keep pricing accessible and affordable to serve all, which today means a built-in discount system that automatically goes into effect if someone doesn’t purchase something right away which discounts it 25%, 50% and then 75% over time.
“It’s been a constant learning curve, we’re constantly trying to improve and we strive to know the best process,” Cohen said.
Like many businesses and individuals, the ReUse Center faced challenges with COVID-19, like needing more space for its employees to work in at safe distances. The expansion into the Triphammer Marketplace doubled the organization’s retail space, and both engagement and donations with reuse has increased, offering new challenges for employees.
“We’re entering into an arena where we’re almost industrial-scale. We now have two forklifts and four trucks and no loading docks, so we over-handle things and we’re not as efficient, we don’t quite have enough space,” Cohen said. “Our 2021 sales were up more than 35% over 2020, but in 2020 we were closed for a few months. We started 2020 with 50 employees and ended with 80.”
Cohen said the goal for 2022 is to balance the unmanageable overflow so employees can process donations more efficiently and the community can see more flow.
As a member of the organization, Cohen said she’d seen the Lifetime Achievement Award given to people she respects deeply, often toward the end of their careers.
“I joke about if it means I’m supposed to retire,” she said.
NYSAR3 has historically had a focus on recycling but is now starting to also prioritize reuse, Cohen said, adding that it’s thrilling that she is able to share some of the lessons she’s learned along the way with other communities to hopefully leverage and inspire more reuse to happen throughout New York State.
“I’ve started learning how profound the simple act of reuse can be,” She said. “The more we’ve done the more I realized we’re affecting people, changing lives, creating opportunity, not just reducing waste but we’re saving energy, teaching skills, there’s just so many positives with this very simple act of just being a little bit thoughtful.”