Making a difference for a more sustainable future

Colleen McSwiggin, Executive Director and Recycler in Chief, Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub, Cincinnati, Ohio

Article | Cincinnati, Ohio | 08 August 2023
Colleen McSwiggin believes that everyone has a part to play in revolutionizing the way we recycle, reduce, reuse, and repurpose things. Since 2021 Colleen and her team have saved 200 tonnes of waste, from ending up in the landfill. ILO Photo/ Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub
"I am encouraged every single day because I see that people want to help and they want to make things better,” says Colleen McSwiggin executive director and recycler in chief of the Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“There is a story called The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley, of a young boy who was walking along the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. When a man approached him and said, “Why are you doing this, you can’t save them all!” He picked up another starfish and replied, “I made a difference for that one!”. We are doing the part that we can, and it turns out, we can have a fairly big impact. I mean, two hundred tons in two years is not nothing,” proudly states McSwiggin.

McSwiggin is a microbiologist and a former chemistry lab manager at Mount St. Joseph University. She was a member of the sustainability committee at the school and headed up multiple recycling initiatives there and in the community. In April of 2021, she founded the Hub with Carrie Harms, currently the director of warehouse operations.

The Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub (the Hub) is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the amount of waste going to landfills through its one-stop drop-off location. It aims to revolutionize how people think about stuff while playing their part in sustainable and environmentally friendly practices and feeding the circular economy for the overall good of the planet and people.

The idea for the Hub grew out of the need for a permanent place McSwiggin saw during an event in 2018, “We had 764 cars go through the line in two and a half hours and we filled five and half semi-trailers of electronics and still had to tell 150 people we couldn’t take their items. I felt awful. I started to think how we can fix this problem?” McSwiggin recalls.

“We’ve saved two hundred tonnes from ending up in the landfill in our first two years. And it’s all types of things such as electronics, light bulbs, batteries, Styrofoam, binders, plant pots, egg cartons,” says McSwiggin. “There is no real infrastructure for reuse or recycle other than what we have created here,” she adds.

McSwiggin says that a lot of the materials received at the Hub can be recycled and repurposed. For example, electronics are recycled. At the end of the planting season, they receive a lot of plant pots and reuse them at the beginning of Spring. The egg cartons go back out to people that have chickens or farmers who want to sell their eggs at farmers’ markets and want to keep their bottom line as robust as possible. Other materials like pill bottles, are sent to a non-profit that reuses them when they go on disaster relief missions.

The current warehouse space for the Hub was built over a hundred years ago. It was first used as a mattress factory. Today, McSwiggin and her team are working hard to find a bigger space to be able to receive more stuff and create more partnerships and collaborations with other nonprofits. The bigger the space the bigger the impact can be is what she believes. ILO Photo/ Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub
Practicing what they preach and keeping in line with the Hub’s reuse mission, the warehouse that McSwiggin and her team use has also been repurposed and holds quite a bit of history to it. The space was initially a mattress factory and then later was used as an auto parts factory.

“We are happy to be in a building like this because of its history, central location, and it also fit in with our mission of reusing,” says McSwiggin.

Support from the community has been fantastic according to McSwiggin. “In 2022 we had over 10,000 unique drop offs and that’s carloads of people, not individual people,” she explains. “We have the support of our city, the county, the people in our community, and local non-profits too. Everyone can see the collective benefit in this. The more we all join together and make this work the better things will be for a lot of people,” she highlights.

In spite of the overwhelming support from the community, McSwiggin says the Hub faces a few challenges. The biggest one is getting a bigger space, “ideally it would be about thirty acres just because we want to have enough room for community gardens, orchards, and walking trails, as well as an education centre, and an underground storage tank to collect rainwater and prevent overland flooding.”

In addition to that, finding a space that is central to the region and funding to expand the Hub’s mission is also critical. “It could be up to $12 million to try to get that place,” McSwiggin explains.

“If we had more space, we could take more things, make more connections to other non-profits and make positive impacts,” McSwiggin emphasizes.

For example, there is a non-profit that collects scraps from construction sites and uses them to make furniture, which is then given to another non-profit that furnishes apartments for new immigrants, previously incarcerated, or previously homeless individuals who are trying to get their lives back together.

“The more of these types of connections we can make, the better we can do.”

Many volunteers of all ages come by the Hub to help out, and to learn about the importance of sustainable practices. By empowering and educating all members of the community, McSwiggin says there is a collective benefit and she hopes to increase this impact in the coming years with a bigger space and access to more resources. ILO Photo/Cincinnati Recycling & Reuse Hub
Promoting community improvement initiatives, such as job creation, workforce development, and diversity and inclusion, are also what Colleen hopes a bigger space can bring about. She estimates that they could take on volunteers and hire about 65 employees from the low-income community (where they are looking at a potential site) including adults with developmental disabilities. As a mother of a “special needs son,” herself this holds particular relevance to her.

Making sure no one is left behind, and all communities, particularly those of color and those in the low-income bracket are included is very important for McSwiggin. “We are trying to get to the point where we can do more outreach in these communities to remove some of the barriers and make access to recycling and reuse more equitable. Part of that is education, as well as exposure to amenities such as the ones we plan to have at the bigger site.”

“The biggest hurdle I would say especially here in the US, unfortunately, is that people have a very disposable mindsight or mindset, and we have got to get away from that. Instead of rushing to get the new iPhone when it comes out, we need to get people to start thinking more thoughtfully. Not just for our sake but for the sake of our kids and grandkids and so on,” she cautions.

Conscious and thoughtful consumption is a must in order for change to come about. However, the onus is not just on the consumer but falls on the producer as well- something McSwiggin wants policymakers to take note of and act on.

For the future, McSwiggin’s vision involves having an increased warehouse space with better accessibility, maximizing outreach and collection capabilities, as well as overcoming recycling challenges such as socio-economic barriers.

She also hopes the Hub’s model to be replicated in other areas around the United States so that reuse and recycling are more of a day-to-day part of people’s lives.

“There is a quote that we have on one of our walls and it says, ‘” There is no such thing as “away”. So, when we throw anything away, it has to go somewhere. I think that encapsulates much of what we do because we are trying to make people think about the entire lifecycle of an object- where things come from, and what happens when you are done with them.”

“I am really glad that I am here, that I feel like I am making a difference, that I am working with like-minded people. I hope we can make the world a better place and that our model can be the blueprint for other organizations.”