Garbage takes on new life at LIC materials reuse site

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Who knew garbage could be so cool?

For the group of self-proclaimed trash junkies who officially threw open the doors of the Arrow Building Material Reuse and Education Center for the first time Saturday, trash is a relative term - kind of like that cliché about "another man's treasure" but not so hackneyed.

"We lovingly call ourselves garbage gals," explained Nicole Tai, the project manager who runs the new center on 21st Street and Borden Avenue in Long Island City. "It's a pet peeve thing. If people have a pet peeve with trash, they join this crowd."

The crowd she's talking about has been represented in Queens for the past 12 years by Arrow, which stands for Astoria Residents Reclaiming Our World - a community group that started as a grass-roots recycling operation in 1991.

Their mission, simply put, is to cut down on waste, and the reuse center does just that by collecting viable materials that would otherwise end up in a trash heap and turning them around for resale.

"All this would have been in a landfill," said Sandra Robishaw, the founder and president of Arrow, as she gestured around the warehouse to the miscellany that has already been collected. "This is a huge accomplishment."

The center is one of seven citywide projects that fall under the umbrella of Waste-Free NYC, a waste-prevention program funded by a city council grant and managed by Inform, a non-profit environmental research group based in Manhattan.

Before it even opened it doors, the reuse center started luring curiosity seekers to its smallish, out-of-the-way warehouse, which at 3,500 square feet is already proving to be too tight for the donations that have been promised.

For consumers the sales pitch is enticing: purchase supplies ranging from bathroom sinks to lumber and windows at anywhere from half to a quarter the price you would pay at a conventional hardware store.

Reuse centers as a phenomenon have taken off in other cities across the country, but Arrow's is the first such site in New York City - a delay Robishaw attributes to the basic difficulty in finding space.

"This kind of business is successful in a lot of cities, and New York has a little bit of a problem that real estate is so expensive," she said as she welcomed a group of a few dozen well-wishers to the opening party. "Everyone here, go out and look for an empty warehouse."

Having only started accepting donations a week or two before the kickoff, the warehouse was still looking a bit sparse Saturday. A few rows of lumber lined a set of shelves near the entrance, while a space alongside it sat empty, awaiting the donation of pipes that will be fused together to create a storage system for the sheet goods. Multi-colored doors leaned against one wall, while a washer-dryer set rested in the back alongside a row of shelves where an electric typewriter lingered with few companions.

"Eventually we'll have aisles upon aisles of hardware to pick through," Tai said.

The bathroom merchandise section had a healthy collection: one tub, two sinks and a mirrored medicine cabinet.

The empty space was a commodity that would not last long, however. Tai was struggling to figure out how she would store a donation of 150 cabinets scheduled to arrive from a Brooklyn furniture manufacturer in the following week.

Arrow will pick up residential donations, and while the staff is hoping to keep it pretty local, they are always willing to make exceptions.

"We'll go out of our way for just about anyone if it's an interesting material," Tai said.

But since no one wants to offset the environmental benefit of salvaging materials by guzzling gas to cart it across the city, Arrow's next goal is to extend its reach.

"We're hoping you'll see one of these in every borough in the next five to 10 years," Tai said.

Through the month of March the shopping hours will be by appointment only, but in April the regular hours will begin: Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Donations will be accepted on shopping days and by appointment at other times. For information, call 718-472-1180.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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