The Art of Gleaning

You can get what you want, if you’re willing to look

May 13, 2009 at 2:06 pm

People throw away lots of perfectly good things every day. But there are other people who believe that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and they’re always on the lookout for usable items consigned to the garbage heap. The junk man who drives though neighborhoods on garbage night is often looking for metal to sell at a recycling center, but the more discerning junker finds items that can be salvaged, reused or even resold. These turn up at area secondhand stores, on eBay and even in some of the nicest houses in town.

At a garden tour last summer, a homeowner was welcoming guests to her beautifully landscaped yard when someone admired the lovely furniture in her garden. Looking around to make sure no one else was listening, she confided, “Don’t tell anyone, but I pick all these pieces out of the trash.”

According to the online Urban Dictionary, these found items are called “obtainium,” a new word for stuff somebody doesn’t want anymore (it sounds nicer than “junk”). And when you find a stash of unwanted treasures, such as the piles around college dorms when students are moving out for the summer, what you’re doing is “gleaning” — picking up the good stuff someone else left behind.

The practice of gleaning is related to the older art of salvaging, and some established companies in town have made a business of salvaged goods. Tim Miller and Mike Williams of Wooden Nickel Antiques do their gleaning before items are thrown away. They’ve been rescuing architectural features such as fireplace mantels and stained glass windows since 1976, and they sell the items at their showroom on Central Parkway near Music Hall.

“We started salvaging when we heard a house was going to be torn down or converted to apartments in areas such as Walnut Hills,” Miller says, and at first they simply tried to convince the owners of the property to sell them the building’s salvageable parts. Over the years, they’ve developed relationships with demolition company representatives who let them know when structures with interesting items are going to be torn down.

“When we first got into the business,” Miller says, “we heard horror stories of crews who would smash stained glass windows to get the lead, which they took to the salvage yard to sell as scrap.”

Now more people recognize the value of the pieces they save from the wrecking ball, and people see the advantages of being able to look for what they need in a place where someone else has already done the “gleaning” to keep some great items off the trash pile.

Margie Alford and Gary Dawson have been promoting the reuse of building materials in Covington for three years. They promote the value of finding new uses for old buildings, too, including the one in which they’ve established the Covington Reuse Center on East 15th Street. The Reuse Center is a nonprofit organization associated with Youth Fair Chance.

“We take the things people were throwing away, find people who can use them and keep this stuff out of the landfill,” Alford says.

They warehouse donated items from buildings that are scheduled for demolition, and they also accept donations of new items — discontinued, damaged or ordered but not picked up materials from local contractors: slate, tiles, bricks, siding and carpet.

Problems and solutions have a way of showing up at their door around the same time. People started to bring them leftover paint, for example, which is hard to dispose of safely and legally. Alford met someone who knew how to blend paint, and now they offer “EnvironBlend” paint in 5-gallon buckets at below retail prices.

They also have windows, fireplace mantels and doors — lots of doors. A donor gave them 400 solid wooden doors he’d been trying to get rid of.

“The biggest thrill for me is to sell someone a solid wood door, not for the $200 or $300 it would cost to have it made but for $50 or $60,” Alford says.

She sees her project as a grassroots opportunity to do good on several levels. She and Dawson plan to start a woodworking shop and begin rehabbing houses in the Covington area, and they want to train people in skills they can use to find work elsewhere.

Furniture and building supplies aren’t the only items that can be reused.

Personnel at the Cincinnati campus of the federal EPA are encouraged to bring unwanted items to the facility’s Reuse Center, and they’re welcome to take what they need instead of purchasing new supplies. An Environmental Excellence team there suggested reusing unwanted office supplies as part of an endeavor to make the facility “greener” about five years ago, and the idea has proven to be successful.

Cathy Cain, who oversees the program, says they get so many three-ring binders that they donate many of them to inner-city schools.

Fireplaces, furniture, siding, paper clips — the items available for gleaning are almost endless.

And for some people who call themselves “freegans,” that list includes food. It might not sound appetizing, but often the best discarded food is found in the dumpsters of fancy specialty stores, because they throw out food regularly to keep their stock fresh.

Online statistics report that more than 25 percent of food produced in the U.S. each year is thrown away, much of it still in its original wrapping. Freegans are motivated by what they see as the waste of good food, and they share tips online about how to find and share food in many municipalities, including Cincinnati.

So don’t let the state of the economy get you down — there are many ways to get what you want or need by embracing the art of gleaning.