Furniture Industry Partners With Prisons

May 19, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — In order to address a critical fault in its closed-loop aspirations, the furniture industry has formed an alliance with one of its greatest adversaries: prison labor.

At an impromptu press conference at the Michigan Recycling Coalition Annual Conference last Tuesday, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association announced the Resource Reclamation Project, a program in partnership with Michigan State Industries, the Department of Environmental Quality and Michigan Department of Management and Budget. The project will put inmates at the Maximum Correctional Facility in Ionia and Parnall Correctional Facility in Jacksonto work disassembling office furniture to be sold as scrap.

Perhaps no other industry has embraced sustainability and green design as passionately as contract furniture. In both products and process, environmental responsibility has become a key concern for companies like Herman Miller, Steelcase and Haworth. BIFMA was the first trade association to issue a set of sustainability guidelines.

But despite a decade of cradle-to-cradle design practices, furniture makers had no means to cost-effectively divert their product from the waste stream. There was no infrastructure available to recycle office furniture.

"All of our assembly lines are set up to put things together, not take them apart," explained Brad Miller, BIFMA manager of communications and government relations. "We were trying to figure out a way to do that, but traditionally, all the companies in the U.S. have been set up to make a profit."

A company essentially has two choices to remove furniture: sell it or throw it away. At the end of its usable lifecycle, the owner or dealer will incur a cost for disposal.

The product could be disassembled for scrap, as most recent designs intend, but no company has found a cost-effective manner of doing so.

"Steelcase can't send a truck to Ishpeming and bring seven workstations back to Grand Rapids, take them apart and call (a recycler) to come pick up a few barrels of scrap," Miller said. "That's not cost effective for either."

In Europe, Miller noted, doing so is mandated by law — a regulation furniture-makers wish to avoid at all costs.

Through discussions on one of the trade association's primary legislative concerns, the trade association developed a solution. For years, the industry has been lobbying for reform of the Federal Prison Industries program, which manufactures furniture and other products in direct competition with private companies. The industry suggested furniture recycling as a better use for prison labor.

"They had the low-cost labor we needed to make this work," said Dave Rinard, Steelcase director of environmental performance. "We just needed to show it can be a viable model."

In 2004, Rinard and other industry experts, including Herman Miller's Paul Murray, facilitated a pilot program in partnership with the state.

As it turns out, the DMB had a substantial stock of obsolete office furniture in warehouses across the state that it could not sell at auction. All of this would eventually be thrown away. The state as a whole, according to Rose Wilson of the DMB, has a "nearly endless" supply of obsolete product.

Two semi-trailers' worth of office furniture were disassembled and sold as scrap during the pilot program. The product was picked up during normal delivery runs by state employees, consolidated and sent to the prisons. The manufacturers receive no monetary benefit from the program. At this point, the program is not intended as a revenue source for the state — the value of the scrap is roughly equivalent to the labor cost of disassembly: 70 cents per hour, per inmate.

The DMB hopes to recycle up to 17 trailers of material in the coming year. If the program continues to be successful, it will expand to include all state agencies, and eventually the general public.

Miller said he believes the model could be copied for virtually any product or material. He also has hopes that other states will adopt the model.

At least one government industry is watching the program closely — Federal Prison Industries Inc.

"If this works, we want to be involved, we want to be part of the solution," said Lawrence Novicky, general manager of FPI's Recycling Business Group. "This looks like an opportunity for us."    

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