Reuse It or Lose It
The Hudson Valley Materials Exchange keeps tons of perfectly good products from filling local landfills. It saves consumers and municipalities millions of dollars. And it is struggling to stay afloat
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Jill Gruber thinks that a warehouse filled with hundreds of severed, mangled body parts is fun. Torsos, hands, eyes, mouths, bodies (minus the heads) hanging by their necks from the rafters. “Ghoulish-looking stuff,” she says. “Body parts all smashed up. A feast for the eyes. Hilarious.”
It’s not what you think. First of all, Gruber is not talking about real body parts. These are fakes, made from latex. Second, Gruber’s interest is environmental and economic, not sociopathic. She’s the executive director of the Hudson Valley Materials Exchange, an organization that finds commercially produced items that are destined for the trash and collects them to be reused, primarily by artists and educational facilities. She discovered the body parts a few years ago at a Saugerties-based company called Simulaids, which makes them as training devices for medical and emergency response personnel. Gruber grabbed about 300 parts that were headed for the garbage pile and sold them — all of them. “I’m not exaggerating, we sold every single body part,” she says. “One artist bought about 30 mouth pieces to make a mirror frame. They were probably the most fun products we ever had.”
But the time for fun may be running out. HVME, which Gruber founded 16 years ago, is teetering on the financial edge. Even though it has, by her own estimates, raised more than $1 million from the sale of materials (which were poured back into the organization) and diverted more than 3,500 tons from the Hudson Valley waste stream (which in turn saves local municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars), the organization itself might end up in the waste bin.
Photograph by Jessica Brown
A portrait of the artist as a pack rat
Gruber, 61, hails from Modena, Ulster County, and has a background in the theater; at one time she also worked as a mental health aide, often using crafts and creativity in her treatments. Later, as the recycling coordinator for New Paltz and Saugerties, she became more interested in reuse. “Recycling is a Band-Aid approach,” she says. “I am a pack rat by nature, and as I was looking at the waste stream I saw lots of reusable stuff that was not being recycled.” In 1993, she applied for a grant to set up HVME as a municipal program of the town of New Paltz.
“The original purpose of the program was to establish a local classified ad service for reusable commercial waste items,” she says. “But I wanted to focus on local wastes in smaller quantities closer to home.” She specifically targeted the arts and education communities: the first products that were listed seemed to have applications to those areas, she says — and Ulster County has one of the country’s highest per capita rates of working artists. “I knew the art community, and as recycling coordinator I thought they could and would use these materials,” she says.
She personally visited local manufacturers, sifting through their waste to find artistic gold. “There were some really fun materials,” she remembers. “We were right across the street from a company that did contract mailing and packaging. For some reason, they shipped baseballs that came in a plastic clamshell. We collected thousands of these clamshells and they were the coolest things for art projects. We got rid of all of them.”
That first year she collected and distributed, free for the taking, nearly 10 tons of reusable waste material from a tiny, 400-square-foot warehouse at the New Paltz town hall. “It was so much fun — every day was like Christmas. Sixteen years later it’s still the same. We are constantly amazed at what we find.”