Working with nature | The reusable business plan: Couple use old mill to put waste to good use

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ADAMS — On a recent rainy day, a couple of painted prints were drying in one of the windows at the Old Stone Mill Center for Arts and Creative Engineering. Reds, greens, pinks and orangey yellows bled and bubbled around each other within each rectangle, a hint of blue here, some purple there. They hung against the view of grey skies and Route 8 like two portals into a different reality, cosmic and colorful.

This art project, made by Adams area youngsters on the third floor of a former textile mill, used materials that, to most people, sound like trash: dried out markers, and deep fat fryer filter paper salvaged from a closed-down restaurant.

But to Cummington couple Leni Fried, 65, and Mike Augspurger, 62, the owners of the Old Stone Mill Center's "zero waste maker space", these frequently discarded items hold not only printmaking potential, but an an opportunity to solve the quite-literally-huge problem of waste. Americans generated 262.4 million tons of waste in 2015, or four and a half pounds per person per day, according to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

"There's a huge necessity for zero waste and reuse," Fried said. "Especially since our recycling can't go to China anymore."

EXPANDING REUSE

Long before China enacted its "National Sword" policy and restricted paper and plastic recycling imports from countries like the U.S. a little over a year ago, Fried and Augspurger could see the need for both storing and reusing surplus, still-good stuff that ended up in the garbage.

"It's been a passion of ours for many years," Augspurger said.

Augspurger, who is a bicycle engineer, and Fried, a printmaker, both describe themselves as solitary by nature, people used to working alone in their studios.

But 12 years ago, Fried found an easy, quick way to make reusable shopping bags out of items like scrap cloth and empty grain bags. She realized she needed to work with other people for her idea to have a real impact — and to actually replace a significant number of disposable shopping bags.

"We do care about the connection between creativity and how it [impacts] the outside world," Fried said. "We can communicate what we've learned and bring it to more people."

That's how The BagShare Project, which holds community workshops and partners with a number of organizations including local food pantries, was born.

As the project grew, Fried and Augspurger found themselves in need of a central, accessible space.

"We can't do much in Cummington," Fried said. "It's to rural."

So with the help of a $325,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based creative placemaking fund, the couple purchased a circa-1860 former wool mill just outside downtown Adams for $350,000 in 2016. They named it the Old Stone Mill for Arts and Creative Engineering.

ZERO WASTE MAKER SPACE

Over the past three years, Fried and Augspurger have renovated the mill and picked up more projects for what they are calling a "zero waste maker space."

"The concept of a zero waste business space is similar to a business incubator space, with an environmental component," Fried said. The Old Stone Mill both provides room for storing reused materials as well as the means for creating new things with them.

While the Old Stone Mill is still technically not up and running yet as an official business, a walk-through shows signs of work well-in-progress.

On the first floor, a table holds piles of flat-folded fabric from Aladco Linens just down Commercial Street (Route 8), which has an agreement with the Old Stone Mill to pass along cast-offs for storage and future use. In February, Fried and Augspurger donated more than six tons of linens to the thrift store company Savers.

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Not far from where the linens have been placed, grain, seed and feed bags are gathered for use by The BagShare Project. All these materials are stored between The Old Stone Mill's sewing shop, which is nearing the end of construction, and its machine shop, which is already populated by heavy-looking, metal tools.

Dozens of reclaimed bicycles line the second floor for Fried and Augspurger's partnership program with the Adams Youth Center, Inc., that allows youngsters to take apart, build and ride bikes. Youngsters can also make items like those colorful, dried-marker prints that hang in the window on the mill's third floor, a wide-open space where Augspurger envisions a future "rink where you can ride."

SHRINKING NEW RESOURCES

As part of the Old Stone Mill's mission to reduce waste and reuse what resources are already available, Fried and Augspurger have hired friend and fellow Cummington resident Rosemary Wessel as the building's energy coordinator.

Her job is to find ways to power the large, airy building with as few fossil fuels as possible. Wessel, who is also the manager of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team's No Fracked Gas in Mass. program, said, "I'd hate to see 28,000 square feet have to be heated with gas."

The mill's roof will likely need repairs, which has sidelined the use of solar panels for now. Instead, Wessel has decided to heat spaces individually. Mini split heat pumps warm the bathrooms and two rooms on the second floor. For the first floor office, Wessel, Fried and Augspurger are trying something unusual: compost.

Using $30,000 of its grant money to fund the process, Old Stone Mill is partnering with Agrilab Technologies Inc. of Enosburg Falls, Vt. to essentially invent a furnace that captures and distributes the heat generated by decomposing organic material.

Jason McCune-Sanders, Agrilab's vice president of engineering, has built the prototype in a small shipping container. It holds about 16 cubic yards of compost and will require just a small amount of electricity to circulate air that then will heat water and power a radiant floor in the Old Stone Mill Center's 300-square foot office.

"People have been intrigued by heating with compost on a small scale, but there aren't many proven results yet," McCune-Sanders said. "This project should give us some real numbers of how a small but efficient compost heat system can perform, and how it can be scaled."

The compost itself will come from TAM Waste Management in Pownal, Vt. That company, which has an organics branch specifically for food scraps, manure, sawdust and tree trimmings, will deliver compost to the container at the Old Stone Mill, pick it up again in a month or two, then bring the material to Bennington, Vt. to finish processing before selling it as a topsoil.

TAM's owner, Trevor Mance, said his company's agreement with the Old Stone Mill Center is the first of its kind.

"I think that we are just beginning to see food waste as the resource that it can be," he said.

NEW MODELS

Whether it's the compost-generated heater or because they don't want to use any new materials, Fried and Augspurger recognize that their business model isn't exactly normal.

"There's lots of people that take on a project with lots of money and make more money," Fried said. "That's not our goal. Once the capital improvements are done, our goal is to have a very small financial footprint."

The couple does want their zero waste maker space business to be sustainable, and they are looking for different ways to create income. They have started charging for their reusable bag-making workshops, for instance, and they expect to eventually charge a fee for people to join the maker space. In the meantime, they are taking any and all donations.

Fried has also been in touch with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to talk about ways to monetize the work that she and Augspurger have been doing, such as taking companies' requests to handle their surplus materials, for free.

"Right now it's 100 percent volunteerism and we're combining with community groups," Fried said.

"We sometimes wonder, are we crazy?" Augspurger admitted. But he and Fried said they are willing to undergo uncertainty to create this new model of business, one that doesn't dump materials into landfills but stores them, reuses them, and educates everyone else about how to do that, too.     

"We want the building to be an example for the future of how we can live in a different way," Fried said.


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