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Waste Not

How the up cycling trend could alter local commerce, consumption

By Chris Gaitten

Published August 1, 2013

Seagulls are something of a rarity in Columbus, what with our distinct dearth of coastline, but there’s one spot where hordes of them flock in an endless dervish of beaks and feathers outside Grove City – the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill. The birds scavenge for food in the mountain of garbage, which the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) claims to grow by about 3,300 tons of trash per day.

Last October, Columbus finally instituted citywide recycling to help alleviate the issue, but some forward-thinking local entrepreneurs are already taking another progressive step with the inventive concept of upcycling.

At its heart, upcycling is transformation. At Griffen Hollow Studio, it means reclaiming the old wooden bleachers from Ohio Stadium and punching out designs in the state’s shape to create keychains. Hanging near the corner in Tomorrow’s Antiques, a broken Philco radio has morphed into a birdfeeder.

Paul Hartong talks about his business, Utility Upcycled Handmade, from his seat at a massive conference table he cobbled together from ash wood scraps saved from the mulching pile by his father.

“I think we’re taking a very neglected, sort of under appreciated object and elevating it,” Hartong said. “You’re taking what would be considered trash and making it a part of someone’s life.”

“It’s just repurposing – breathing new life into something,” summed up Justin Smith, co-owner and head carpenter of Tomorrow’s Antiques.

Each of the three shops fills a slightly different niche within the upcycled market. Alex Traxler, the founder and craftsman of Griffen Hollow Studio, has focused mostly on promotional items like the Ohio Pride keychains and full-sized, Ohio-shaped clocks, both laser-cut from the original redwood bleachers, which date back to the Horseshoe’s dedication on October 22, 1922, against Michigan.

“If I can put a spin on it to make it ‘Ohio,’ I will,” he says from the lobby of the Columbus Idea Foundry, where his studio is nestled. “The thing that I’m really trying to do is just promote the conversation around the products.” In addition to the promo items, he has helped create an Ohio-centric feel at local establishments like One Line Coffee, Fourth Street Bar and Grill, and The Crest gastropub, where everything inside is upcycled.

At Utility Upcycled, which Hartong runs as a side business in his free time from his day job at EclipseCorp – where the conference table makes its home – the products skew more toward utilitarian and industrial-chic home and office furnishings. Most of the shelves, desks, and art begin as reclaimed wood, old pallets, and random bits of steel pipe and industrial materials.

“It’s more of a sculpture than anything else in my opinion,” he said, of his faux-carpentry skills. “I think [customers] like the idea [that] they have a one-of-a-kind piece.”

“It’s been personalized for them, customized for them,” added Kayleigh Snyder, his girlfriend and coworker at both businesses.

Smith’s work at Tomorrow’s Antiques places a premium on heirloom-quality relics, refurbished and redesigned to serve fresh home-décor purposes, like the floor grate converted into a coffee table or the vanity created from a front door, porch columns, and a farmhouse windowsill.

When it comes to sourcing materials, Traxler taps American Plastics, Laird Plastics, Johnson Plastics, Compton Construction, and his own Griffen Hollow tree farm in Kentucky, founded by his grandfather. Hartong uses his father’s milled scraps, the pallet graveyard behind Eclipse, and any worthwhile treasures on the side of the road.

Smith recalled searching auctions, flea markets, and garage sales with co-owner Steven Mills, but now most materials originate via custom orders from clients. He admits, though, that it has often been an uphill battle to convince patrons of the merits of upcycling.

“It’s hard to get people into that groove of upcycling and repurposing,” he said. “They love the things they see, but a lot of people just aren’t sold on it.” Only minutes before, a middle-aged woman wandered into his shop, perused his wares, remarked “cool stuff,” and left, nothing purchased. He estimates that about 20 percent of his clientele appreciate the upcycling concept, but most of his work lately has come from custom carpentry and lighting made from brand new materials. Smith said he would like to see upcycling embraced more often – not just for the sake of his sales, but so people learn to practice it on an individual basis.

“Upcycling is my mission,” Traxler agreed. “Spreading the word of upcycling is my mission, really.”

In the sustainable spirit, each of the artisans has made a commitment to minimizing the waste their shops create. Hartong manufactures small crates from drop wood and saves the long, nail-filled stringers from pallets until he can conceive a suitable purpose. Smith gives scrap wood to artists around town, places metal out back of his Short North store for the homeless to collect, and plans to begin selling or donating his sawdust to farms and schools.

Traxler already turns his unusable wood scraps into chips for pet bedding and horse stalls, and he would like to create more so he can aid the nonprofit Last Chance Corral in Athens. He’s also absorbed the supposed refuse of other shops within the Idea Foundry, reducing some to net-zero waste.

“These things, these scraps, this waste that people give me, it really isn’t waste,” he said. “It ends up in the landfill, like acrylics – that doesn’t degrade for a long time.”

For pioneers like Traxler, that is the real goal – zero waste, zero landfill. As the concept of upcycling grows in popularity, the market has to expand to make it more commercially viable so that Tomorrow’s Antiques can rely solely on client-generated relics for custom work, and Utility Upcycled Handmade can be more than a side business. Larger companies could incorporate it into their supply chains, like some of the plastic processors from which Traxler currently sources. Eventually, it could hold a place next to once-fringe but now-common practices like recycling.

For the time being, though, the gulls still have a swelling mass on which to feast. •

To purchase upcycled products or for more information about each company, visit www.griffenhollowstudio.com, www.tomorrowsantiques.com, and [www.facebook.com/UtilityUpcycledHandMade]