Recycle Ann Arbor


An interview with Kirk Lignell


Tell us about your business.

Recycle Ann Arbor is a nonprofit community and environmental organization focused on developing and operating innovative reuse, recycling, and zero-waste programs. When it was founded in 1977, it consisted of a flatbed truck and local students who wanted to prove curbside recycling could work. Now, we operate a drop-off station for waste and recycling; we have a ReUse Center, which is a donation and retail shop where we sell urban wood, building products, housewares, books, etc.; and lastly, we have a construction and demolition recycling operation that also services roll-off containers.

What inspired you to start working with urban wood?

Recycle Ann Arbor was selling urban wood before my time here, but legend has it that when the emerald ash borer came through Michigan and wiped out the ash trees, some members of Recycle Ann Arbor wanted to do something with the excess of wood. We started by building a conference room floor from ash trees that were destroyed by the emerald ash borer. It gelled from there into what it is today, where we work with six saw mills to provide the community with materials and inspiration for working with urban wood. Urban wood sales make up 25 percent of the ReUse Center’s revenue.

How do you present the concept of urban wood to your customers?

The majority of our customer base has gained knowledge of our offering and, Southeast Michigan’s Reclaimed Wood Marketplace, fairly organically. We work hard to get the word out about the program and what it means. We have been successful growing awareness out of our shop here in Ann Arbor. We have worked to expand our reach through partnerships with, Wisconsin Urban Wood, and Habitat for Humanity in Flint, Michigan. Our motto is, “next best use for a tree,” and people have a great appreciation for that. They can look at a giant walnut slab and understand that this would have been chipped up, but now, instead, it could become a desk, table, or other artisan furniture piece.

What products do you sell?

We work collectively with our mills to co-op urban wood board. We work with them to make sure anything we do is in concert with what they are doing. Some guys will bring in a shelf kit or an Adirondack chair kit, which are made of all of the parts and pieces but the customer puts it together, to test a market interest. But mainly we sell lumber and live edge slabs.

How profitable is the urban wood portion of your business?

In 2007, we started selling urban wood. To some extent, the entire time it has been subsidized by Recycle Ann Arbor because there is no critical mass, not enough sales to support the overhead. But in 2017, it is now more economically viable for us. We do what we can to break even or a little better. Ultimately, we see this more as in support of our mission to be an environmental, recycling, and reuse organization.

How did entering the urban wood market change the way you do business?

The biggest change for us was organizing the sales for the saw mills. Before we worked with urban wood, if someone wanted to donate something, like a bedroom set for example, we didn’t have to keep track of who donated it and how much it was sold for. Now, we are working with six mills and have to know which board was sold, which mill it came from, and who we have to pay at the end of the month. We started with a handwritten system of stickers on the boards, but have evolved and organized to now use a system with universal product codes (UPCs).

What is the overall experience customers have when they visit your ReUse Center?

Customers are drawn to the uniqueness and variety of the items we have here. They might come once and find a maple board they like. Next time they visit it might be catalpa. Or a live edge board. Once we had a maple tree that died from a fungus, which sounds bad, but when the log was processed into boards, the wood had skinny red veins that were just eye-catching. Coming here is not like walking into a home improvement store and seeing an acre of 2x4s here, and an acre of 4x4s there. Because all of the board pieces are different, it helps people envision what they might build with them. Customers might not walk in with an idea of what they want to make with urban wood, but they might walk out with some ideas they are excited about.

Who are your ideal customers?

If I had to pick it’s probably more the artists, artisans, furniture makers, and woodworkers. We have had people who send pictures of what they have made with urban wood from the ReUse Center, and it is really all over the map, from armoires and kitchen tables to people redoing kitchens. We don’t advertise but we do connect with woodworkers through building and remodeling associations. We make an effort to let people know we are here and if they have a unique project, we can help them bring it to life.

Are there ways you wish you could better serve them?

One challenge we have is that we offer boards in a small volume. If someone came in and said they wanted to build an entertainment center, there may not be enough of the right types of pieces to do so. What would be interesting, is if there was a way for our mills to work together to provide that volume. So one mill might not have been able to fulfill an order large enough for an entertainment center, but between four mills we were able to find 20 pieces of walnut shelving someone could use to build one. There are things like that… making shopping easier… that would benefit our customers more. So how can we all work together better — even connecting with municipalities who have plenty of trees that come down for many reasons — to fill the supply chain?

Name your top overall challenges working with urban wood.

First, the balance between mission and economics. If we were not on a mission to drive the urban wood market, it would not have lasted as long as it has here.

And from a customer standpoint, we are not wood guys. Our staff that sells urban wood also sells everything else in the ReUse Center. So for building projects, we don’t have helpful knowledge of which wood would be better for which use, or the best stain to draw out desired features. Being more educated, having a staff educated in wood and lumber would help a lot.

Name your top overall benefits of working with urban wood.

First, we found a great use and resource for a material that wasn’t being used. It is very satisfying to have witnessed how urban wood has grown in demand throughout the years.

Second, I’m not a woodworker at all, but when you walk into the ReUse Center and you see the inventory, you just get this urge to do something with it – it deserves to have a second life. Urban wood has its own inherent inspiration built in. How many things do you see every day that you can say the same thing about?

And finally, the uniqueness it brings to our store. If you come in for urban wood, you get to see the rest of the store. On the other hand, if you are looking for a thrift shop and see the urban wood, it adds an entirely different aspect to what we offer the community.

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The Urban Wood Network is funded in part by the USDA Forest Service, State & Private Forestry, Cooperative Forestry, and the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.  The Urban Wood Network provides equal employment opportunities (EEO) to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetics.