Sustainable Futures Repurposes Glass Bottles – and Human Lives

A Sustainable Futures worker cuts the top off of a wine bottle to repurpose it as a drinking glass. Photo: Courtesy Sustainable Futures

I was like one of those used wine bottles. I was used and discarded. I laid on the ground, my label faded and my contents dried.  I forgot the good that was once inside, the joy and happiness I once knew. I hated what I was and what I had become. Life was dark, bad and not worth living. The prison took what little hope I had reinforcing what people and drugs had told me about myself my whole life. I came to the work center looking for work. I was told I had to have a job or I’d be sent back to the prison and someone else who was employable would take my place. Once again I was not worth keeping, I found a job here at Sustainable Futures and I was recycled. I was picked up, washed off a little and was cut off at the top, sanded down and polished. I’ve been given hope, worthiness and self love. Now I shine, not just on the outside but on the inside. I’m like the glasses we make. I have a new use.  — Lisa Childers, IDOC inmate (from the Sustainable Futures home page)

Sustainable Futures is a brand-new nonprofit that repurposes glass bottles — and gives new purpose to human lives. It’s a simple idea: Businesses donate used glass bottles to their Boise, Idaho-based center, and hard-to-place workers process the glass to produce new and improved glassware. The company then sells the repurposed glassware back to the businesses. “It’s a great product, and it’s the right thing to do,” says Carlyn Blake, executive director of Sustainable Futures.

Although they only began operations eight months ago — in an economy that was shutting doors rather than opening them — the business is viable and looking to grow. Blake began working with the company in January after her position at a large financial institution was eliminated. She spoke with Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) by phone from her Idaho office. — Megan Kimble, Contributing Writer


BPGL: What is the mission of Sustainable Futures?

BLAKE: We actually have two missions. First, we have an environmental mission called “Closing the Loop”: We take used wine and spirit bottles donated by downtown businesses and recycle them, turning them into usable glasses, bowls, candles, and vases — among other things.

Workers unload bottles that have been donated by local bars and restaurants. Photo: Sustainable Futures

We also have a social mission that we call “Opening the Circle,” which is providing employment to those who have barriers to employment. Originally, we started with women who had recently been released from prison, but we’re growing, and we’ve now expanded our social mission to include refugees and at-risk youth.

We give people a step up by providing them with temporary employment, in which we give them work history and train them. They not only get vocational skills, but they also take over 40 hours of life training with us. We give them a letter of recommendation, and we help them find a job in the community.

Ultimately, our goal is to provide healthy and happy taxpayers. We’re just the transition between no job at all — not productive, not happy — to full-time, permanent work in the community.

BPGL: How did you begin working with Sustainable Futures?

BLAKE: I spent 19 years working for a large financial institution. When my position was eliminated, that gave me the opportunity to do a little bit of soul searching. I found that I had spent 19 years in a position that did not connect me to the community, and realized that I wanted to do something that gave back to the community.

I also knew I wanted to do something that served the environment. When I found Sustainable Futures and learned not only about their environmental mission but also their social mission, that was enough to make me jump. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day, to work for a nonprofit that serves both sides — the social and the environmental.

BPGL: Is Sustainable Futures a viable company at this point?

Workers sort donated bottles in the Sustainable Futures factory. Photo: Sustainable Futures

BLAKE: Well, we’re a brand new nonprofit — Sustainable Futures has only been in existence for 8 months. We generate revenue, but we’re a 501(c)3, so we also get grants, and we take donations. Because were so young, were still trying to get our feet underneath us from a profitability standpoint.

We’re not supported 100 percent by revenue generation yet. I think that we will get there with our sales and marketing plan. With grants, donations, and revenue all combined, we’re sort of covering our costs, and now we’re looking to grow.

BPGL: What are your plans for growth?

BLAKE: We’re hoping to double our production line. Right now, we can produce about 600 glasses a day. We’ve opened ourselves up to the wholesale and bulk market, and we’re really focusing on restaurants, bars, and hotels. We’re working with them on changing their glassware from that which they currently buy — glassware that’s not environmentally friendly and not very durable and not colored — and getting them to switch over to our glassware.

As we get more accounts, we’re going to need to produce more glassware, and we’re going to need to produce different products. Growth, for us, is in doubling the production line, moving to a facility that’s bigger, employing more people, and creating more products. We just this month added in vases and bowls, and we’re looking at doing an item called a squirrel baffler, which keeps squirrels off of bird feeders. We have a whole line of specialty glass that comes from the liquor bottles we collect.

Many donated bottles are repurposed into drinking glasses for local restaurants and bars. Photo: Sustainable Futures

We cut off a lot of bottle tops, and we put them in a bin, and those go to the recycle center. What we’re hoping to look at next is doing something in cooperation with the city of Boise around the sorting and cleaning of that glass. It could be crushed and used either as sand or cullet, for landscaping projects or pipework, anyplace that you might need sand. We have all of those capabilities, but we can’t get there until we grow just a little bit more.

BPGL: On the social side of Sustainable Futures, who have you been working with? How do you find people to work in your program, and how long do they stay?

BLAKE: We have an incredible relationship with the Department of Labor. The Department of Labor has many grants designed to help different groups of people. They have money [designated] to pay for salaries, and we’re a company that needs labor. For example, for the women who are coming out of prison, the Idaho Department of Labor wants them to be able to work, because the number one thing that keeps women from rescinding is having a job. So, they pay the salaries of the women who work here temporarily, while we train them and give them job skills and help them find a job in the community. We would not be in existence if it were not for our partnership with the DOL.

There are other groups that tap into this Department of Labor resource as well and help us. For example, Idaho’s Agency for New Americans is a group that helps refugees in the area. So, the three of us work together — first, to see if there is salary money from the DOL; second, to see if the Agency for New Americans can provide that labor; and third, we’re the business — can they work here. So, we all work together in order to get employees through the door. While they’re here, we train them and prepare them to find permanent employment once they leave.

Candles are another popular product. Photo: Sustainable Futures

They typically work for us anywhere from 320 to 540 hours. It depends on the grant and how much money the DOL is able to provide. That money is attached to each person who walks through our door. We’ll have them somewhere between three and four months, which is a really nice chunk of time. It’s easy for them to learn the work, they feel like they belong here, it’s a family atmosphere, and it gives us time to do life skills training and vocational training.

BPGL: What does the life skills training entail?

BLAKE: The life skills training is everything from personal health and hygiene to goal setting, self esteem, motivation, even just how to surf the Internet, how to use the computer, how to build a resume, how to dress for an interview, how to do an interview, how to fill out an application, how to look for a job, and where to find a job.

Because we have a lot of partnerships with businesses in the community that buy our glassware, they’re familiar with who it is we employ. And they are then willing to interview and hire our employees, because they know the kind of training they go through in order to graduate from our program. For example, we’ve had a great relationship with a restaurant here called Bitter Creek and Red Feather. The owner provides us bottles; he purchases our glassware and candles; and he hires our employees. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship, and we’re trying to create more of those relationships in the community.

BPGL: What are some of the challenges you face, within the program or within the community?

Etchings add to the beauty of some of the Sustainable Futures glassware. Photo: Sustainable Futures

BLAKE: You know, it’s surprisingly easy to do what I do. The product that we sell is an easy product to sell. It’s an easy product to buy. The glassware is more durable than standard glassware, and it’s more colorful. It’s environmentally the right thing to do, and it’s socially the right thing to do. So, it’s an extremely easy sale.

Probably our biggest challenge from a sales standpoint is just the economy. We are also very lightly staffed from within Sustainable Futures itself. The majority of our labor is on the production line, and the DOL helps us with those salaries. We only have a small handful of people who actually work for Sustainable Futures, which means we use a pretty large volunteer network to help us with fund-raising, grant writing, asking for donations, marketing, our website.

We have four on staff — our executive director, a [human resources] and programs manager, a production manager, and a lead trainer on the production line. Everyone else is provided through the DOL. We average ten employees on the production line.

Once we double the production line, and we grow into new facility, we’re really hoping that we can double [the number of employees]. If we ever start producing sand and cullet, then we’ll need to triple that. My hope is that by the end of 2010 we will be in a new facility, we will have doubled our production line, and we’ll really be looking at that cooperative effort with the city and county and doing more recycled glass projects.

BPGL: How did Sustainable Futures get its start?

BLAKE: Our human resources and programs manager was one of those women who got into trouble and went to prison, and when she came out prison, she couldn’t find work. No one wanted to hire her because she had six years of no work experience, and she had been to prison. It didn’t matter what she did, she couldn’t get anyone to hire her.

Our founder, Lisa Scales, is a radiologist in town who owned a business called Green Foundations, which was an environmentally friendly building supply company. Our programs manager and this other young lady worked for Lisa. [After hearing their story], Lisa would say they were really the inspiration behind Sustainable Futures and what Sustainable Futures is here to do. The HR and programs manager still works here, and she continues to grow and thrive with the company.

Sustainable Futures recently added bowls to their product line. Photo: Sustainable Futures

BPGL: What do you see as Sustainable Futures’ biggest impact?

BLAKE: From a success standpoint, anybody who leaves Sustainable Futures, goes out into the community, and gets a job is a success story. We have people working at Red Robin, at Idaho Pizza Company, at restaurants all around town. All of those are success stories. We have employees who finish their hours, and they love it so much that they come back and volunteer. That really says a lot about the stability and love that this kind of place provides for someone who was having a difficult time finding employment.

Our [ex-prisoner] employees are temporaries with us. We don’t necessarily know why they went to prison. We don’t necessarily know why they’re in trouble. From a refugee standpoint, many times they can’t get a job because English is their second language, and they’re new to the country, and they’re traumatized because of what’s happening in their homelands. Working in America is a whole different ballgame, and they don’t know enough about America to get a job. They aren’t with us very long. They’re just with us long enough that they can get a work history and get training; then they’re more likely to find employment.

People are very enthusiastic about giving us their bottles. There’s not a whole lot of recycling that goes on in Idaho — there’s some, but not a lot. This is a place that they can bring us their bottles, and they can say, “At least I know this glass is being recycled.” But you know, in order us for to be supported, we have to have people buy and purchase our glassware, too. We have a really great product to sell. That’s what makes it so great. It’s a great product, and it’s the right thing to do.

Where to Buy It

If you’re not in Idaho, the best place to purchase the company’s repurposed glassware is to visit the Sustainable Futures website (watch for a greatly expanded shopping cart coming in about a week.)

In Idaho, Blake says, “We sell our glasses at Think Boise First store, Buy Idaho store, Dunia Marketplace, Record Exchange, Bueno Cheapo Vino, and Boise Co-Op. All of these stores are located in Boise. We also have our own showroom in Garden City at 5238 W Chinden, where we sell all our products. Our showroom has products that cannot be found at any retail outlet.”

Megan Kimble

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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