Materials we throw away aren’t trash—they are possibilities to create something new.

No one knows this better than the Office of Sustainability’s Reclamation intern, Abigail West, who tackles the issue of furniture waste by using landfill-bound materials to construct well-crafted  items of furniture.

“So many of us buy something relatively cheap when we move in somewhere,” West said. “That stuff hopefully gets donated, but we’re all familiar with the full dumpsters and parking lots full of furniture around move-out times.”

But discarded materials don’t have to end up in the landfill or the recycling bin. The life of unwanted materials can be extended by envisioning a new use for them.

The Facilities Management Division (FMD) of the University of Georgia, where West did an apprenticeship over the summer, came across 200 wooden doors unable to be used for the project for which they were originally ordered. Simultaneously, there was a need for workspace tables for a new entrepreneurship program called The Launch Pad affiliated with the Terry College of Business.

Abigail West and Heather Nelms, the lead painter of the Facilities Management Division at UGA, stand next to a table West constructed.

West created designs for three of these tables by incorporating the discarded doors, and she constructed one herself during the apprenticeship. That table is currently being used by the The Launch Pad program as a collaborative student workspace.

Preventing these items from ending up in the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) landfill is West’s way of making a local impact in a complex, national problem.

According to EPA estimates from 2017, up to 8.5 billion tons of office assets are thrown away each year in the United States. Just within the UGA system, 155 tons of material were sent from surplus to the ACC landfill between July 2017 and June 2018, making up almost 3 percent of UGA total landfill tonnage.

This amount of furniture waste within the university system is much more complicated than a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

“It’s no one person’s fault, it’s a systemic problem,” West said. “It makes me sad for the people who have to do the dirty work of smashing it up and hauling it off to the landfill.”

This is why, for West, the most effective way to approach the multi-faceted issue is by talking to one person at a time, constructing one table at a time.

For instance, West used an old bright yellow “windy road ahead” road sign to construct a corner table. It took only a couple of hours for her to create it with the help of employees from the FMD Sheet Metal Shop. She constructed a different corner table by combining a "two-way traffic" sign and an un-needed file cabinet.

A corner table constructed by Abigail West from an old road sign.

West says it’s all about thinking in terms of possibilities when presented with a piece of trash, rather than immediately throwing it away.

When producing a new product becomes necessary, it’s important to create a work of high quality.

“Good craftsmanship is inherently sustainable,” West said.

And sustainable craftsmanship doesn’t always mean avoiding harsh chemicals or using the “greenest” supplies. If craftswomen such as West use strong chemicals, the construction process may take less time and labor, and it may produce a work that lasts longer.

At the university, if a member within a department has quality equipment or materials they no longer need or is searching for used items, they may join the Surplus Listserv to communicate with others in the university community.

A corner table constructed by Abigail West using an old road sign.

However, there is a misconception about Surplus, and the space where the used items are sent.

Many staff members are under the impression that when they hire Support Services to transport furniture to Surplus, the items will be dropped off at a warehouse and reused by someone else within UGA. However, transporting furniture to Surplus doesn’t mean reuse will happen.

“If I could share one piece of information with everyone who works for UGA, it would be that there is no surplus warehouse,” West said.

Surplus is essentially a large office space with a loading dock, and staff do not have the physical room or resources to manage furniture for long before it is sent to the landfill to make room for other items.

With this in mind, UGA employees should avoid discarding furniture unless it is necessary, but if they do have materials to share they can join the listserv by emailing property@uga.edu to subscribe. Items on the Listserv are state property and can only be used for official university business.

“If we can rethink the way we buy and pass on furniture so that it’s more of a question of how best to reuse, we can conserve resources across the industry,” West said.

Written by Nicole Schlabach