Article on Ecolibrium by the Ecolocal Guide04-Aug-2011
Sustainability expert Steven Davis, who's based in the Troy area, started Ecolibrium about a decade ago. In 2008 he turned his business into full-time work after leaving his job as sustainability coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Values motivated Steve to get into this line of work. "I don't like waste and I didn't see anyone else providing this service who understands the big picture [of waste]," he said. He sees as his current vehicle to help "move the community toward Zero Waste." [See the sidebar for an explanation of Zero Waste.]
Ecolibrium provides clean outs and professional organizing for clients, and sells their unwanted stuff on commission. The skills and networks that Steve has developed enable him to make sure that usable materials do not get wasted.
Familiarity with the resale market for a wide range of items gives the business an edge in helping clients decide what's worth putting up for sale. Besides selling on eBay and Craig's list, Steve moves mixed lots of quality goods and antiques at frequent estate sales.
"It’s fun to look at all the stuff we have. People really get jazzed about it," he said. Another plus are the prices, which are "more on the affordable end," he added.
This particular business requires trucking. Steve recently purchased a 14-foot Isuzu box truck. Running on a 4-cylinder engine, this very fuel-efficient truck replaces the more awkward, gasoline hungry van and trailer combination previously used by the business.
Ecolibrium's decision making hierarchy
Steve tells his residential customers that he will approach their stuff "as a triage. They understand that concept from the medical field."
Steve analyzes a household's surplus stuff through a series of practical questions. The aim is to have the lightest, lowest amount of waste left for disposal.
• Are items saleable?
• If not, can they be donated?
• If neither of these reuse options apply, can they be recycled?
• Could items be repurposed for a different use?
• And finally, could they be disassembled so their components could be recycled or reused?
Useful services when selling a house or just moving
Ecolibrium's typical client is an individual or couple downsizing their possessions in order to transition to a smaller home. The occasion of selling a house often creates an imperative for the homeowner to declutter or get a more radically clean out.
As a means to stretch his miniscule marketing budget, Steve zeroed in on realtors as a source for referrals. According to Steve, in House Selling 101 one learns that cluttered houses are more difficult to sell. They're just too distracting for the majority of potential buyers. Very few people are able to imagine how their own stuff would look in a house that's crammed with someone else's belongings.
Ecolibrium also preps houses for sale in other ways, such as doing small repairs or a bit of carpentry. Steve is always pleased when his business can make use of unwanted building materials that the homeowner has on hand or that he rescued from previous jobs. Practicing what he preaches, he used 80 percent recovered materials to build a three-season room on the rear of his own house.
In a recent situation Steve had to create more room in a crowded basement before he could help his client organize his stuff and decide what to do with it. Using rough-cut pine lumber that his client no longer wanted, he solved the space problem by constructing shelves.
Steve said that it might seem strange to build shelving for a client when he is getting ready to move. The payback comes when prospective buyers notice the useful storage space.
The path toward his reuse business
As a young man, while still in college, Steve lost a parent and was faced with the difficult situation common to many of his customers. "It took me two years to go through the house because I was emotionally involved with the stuff," he said empathetically.
After earning his degree in Psychology, which he finds helpful in his line of work, Steve went on to Antioch New England, a non-traditional graduate school. Immersed in the field of non-profit management, he found he would prefer to work for a socially responsible business. At the time, in 1997, "Ben and Jerry's, Stonyfield and Tom's of Maine were all still independent businesses," he said.
During grad school, Steve took a side job with a clean out service. Though the business recycled a lot, he was appalled that all kinds of usable stuff were being destroyed or handed off to the employees. What a waste, he thought, when reuse requires less work and brings greater returns than dismantling items.
For his Antioch practicum, he chose the Community Warehouse, a non-profit reuse center in Hoosick, NY, because it sounded like exactly what he wanted to do. The initial reality though proved grim. The store had barely any customers, the storage barns were locked, and the resale market in computers had barely been tapped, he said.
After Steve completed his stint there, the Community Warehouse created a job for him and then promoted to operations manager. He threw himself into his work, retooled the place and made it run like a viable retail business. "I ended up making $100,000 a year in revenues selling garbage," he said.
After three or four years Steve left the Community Warehouse and started Ecolibrium. An inquiry from the student greening coordinator at RPI led to a staff position he held for over seven years. He was able to save the university $50,000 a year just by diverting waste for recycling and reuse. When buildings were remodeled or demolished, he made arrangements to get usable materials into the hands of community groups. By showing results, he said he was able to win people over.
Steve Davis and daughter
Adopting the Zero Waste goal involves changing practices in order to systematically reduce the volume and toxicity of waste. Instead of being discarded and land filled or incinerated, products and materials get reused, recycled, composted or repurposed. The objective is to conserve all resources. The things that cannot be cycled back into something useful need to be redesigned or avoided. Hundreds of cities, towns and larger political jurisdictions around the world are showing that Zero Waste makes economic and ecological sense.