The Reuse Alliance’s ReuseConex conference, which took place in Portland from October 18-20, was a rousing success. Opportunities for networking, replicable models and best practices abounded, and attendees took full advantage of the information exchange. Here are six lessons learned at the event.

There is still a lot of confusion about what reuse is.

“Reuse means a lot of different things to different people,” according to Marty Metro, a Reuse Alliance board member and CEO of Is reuse the same thing as recycling? (No.) Can people really get high-quality products if they buy used? (Yes.) Do people reuse to make money, express their creative side or save the planet? (All of the above, although not necessarily at the same time.) Attendees were generally in agreement about one thing: Confusion about the term “reuse” is a barrier within the industry and needs to be addressed.

Sometimes being a successful reuse organization means taking everything.

Ruth Daoust with Michigan State University’s Surplus Store and Recycling Center, which is considered a model for other campus reuse centers around the country, emphasized this point. In the early days of their operation, “We never said no,” Daoust said. “We took everything from people.” Rather than making students decide if they should bring in that three-legged chair, Daoust says, they took whatever they were offered. Even if they couldn’t reuse the whole chair, they might be able to reuse the cushion or the wheels and make money on the leftover metal or wood scrap. Why? “It adds value to you and your operations,” Daoust explained. “Don’t make the customer decide what you do or don’t want.”

Sometimes being successful means specializing.

Terry McDonald from St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene, OR, used books as an example. “Books are often a nuisance in thrift organizations because we don’t treat them well,” he said. His operation decided to do things differently. It went after the book market aggressively, and within a couple years it was receiving 100 tons of books a month. Since the organization now had books in high enough quantity, it was able to develop “libraries” in its stores that were organized and categorized, offering a good selection. Books have gone from a miniscule product line to the third highest-selling item in the agency’s thrift stores.

It is important to quantify how reuse helps your organization.

Joseph Floyd with the University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability said his operations calculates the value of putting items back into reuse rather than buying new. The university estimates it saves more than $2 million a year with this practice. Quantifying these savings helps him make a case for why his department and its work are so important.

Reuse can be a powerful way to help people, not just the planet.

Dave Bennink with ReUse Consulting spends much of his time training ex-offenders to work in the deconstruction industry. While working at one particular site, Bennink was confused when several employees chose to wear their hard hats home rather than taking them off at the end of the day. When he asked a man why he always took his protective gear with him, the man replied, “When I get back to my neighborhood, I want people to know that I’m turning my life around. I want them to see me as a worker and not something else.”

There are a lot of replicable models out there.

People in the reuse industry are remarkably willing to share information with people looking for ways to get into the reuse business. Jim Quinn with Portland’s Metro, a regional government organization, told attendees about his organization’s program to reuse household hazardous waste products. John Cloud Kaiser with New York City’s Materials for the Arts shared his organization’s best practices for partnerships between schools and creative reuse organizations. Keynote Kyle Wiens of discussed the national trend in repair cafés, where people meet up to learn and teach others about repairing items. People looking to get into the reuse industry have a lot of successful ideas to choose from.