Welcome to The Multi-usiverse! Alongside your guide, Garr Punnett, explore worlds of opportunity within the use of physical resources across companies and organizations. In this episode we’re joined by Emily Barker, Executive Director at Reuse Minnesota. Enjoy Episode Twenty-Five of the Multi-usiverse!
[00:00:07.150] – Garr Punnett
Welcome back masters of the Multiusiverse My name is Garr Punnett. Chief Impact Officer here at Rheaply. We’re joined today with Emily Barker, Executive Director of Reuse Minnesota. She did so much there. The woman talks at length in terms of everything that she knows about Reuse Minnesota. But what’s fun about this conversation is while I had very little to do with input and really forwarding the conversation, she talks about a lot of the different things that go into building a reuse initiative in a community. So whether that’s talking more and further about how do you get funding, how do you then start to aggregate voices and create again a broader coalition of voices to really get change going. And then also what does this mean for individual community members? How can you get involved if that’s joining a conference that’s coming up in October 2022, that might be the case, or if it’s actually just being more involved on continuing the conversation and being advocate for reuse in your community, all of it is available for Reuse Minnesota and all of its available for Emily to talk to right now. Emily, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:01:17.000] – Garr Punnett
We’re joined by Emily Barker, Executive Director of Reuse, Minnesota. Wow, this has been a long time in the making. I’m excited to finally have you on. Can you talk a little bit more about Reuse Minnesota, what you all are doing and then we’re going to get into some of the nitty gritty of how industry groups work like this and what you all have been pushing through.
[00:01:39.590] – Emily Barker
Yeah, well, thank you so much for having me. It’s great to connect. I was really great to connect with you when you’re here in the Twin Cities and chat more about what you’re all doing. Reese, Minnesota is a nonprofit that has been around actually we’re celebrating ten years in the fall, which is very exciting. And the short term way I explain it to people, we’re kind of like a Chamber of commerce or a trade group for the Reuse sector. And the longer version is that we are around to advocate, promote and educate all about all things reuse. And that includes we have a wide umbrella of what Reuse means. We try to be more inclusive. We include rental and repair as well as resale, kind of the things that more people are more familiar with. But we also have members, we are member based organizations. We have members who are in government, who are advocating for reused policies, whether it be deconstruction or putting on swap events or doing fixit clinics. And so we are really trying to bring in the government side as well and the educational side. So we are a network based organization that includes anybody who wants to be involved with the review sector.
[00:02:47.580] – Emily Barker
We have individual members as well and do a lot of different things, speaking, going to schools, talking to groups of master recyclers as well as a conference that we do in the fall just.
[00:03:01.270] – Garr Punnett
So that we plug it early here. What is that conference coming up in the fall?
[00:03:05.820] – Emily Barker
Yeah, we have our third, I guess not quite annual because we didn’t do one in 2021, but annual conference, and we did one in 2019 in person and then did a virtual one in 2020. This year we’ll be back in person on October 4 at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. So if you’re in the Twin Cities or anywhere nearby, we would love to have folks join. There will be one virtual track, and so if folks are further away or just can’t swing it, we’ll have our two main sessions where everybody’s together, those will be on that, and then three of the breakout sessions will be streamed. So if folks want to join us virtually from elsewhere, they can definitely do that. And we also have some tours the day before. So for folks who are in town and want to check out, one of our member organizations, including Repowered, they just changed their name from Tech Dump, but they’re going to be doing a tour and bridging keys for kids, rethink tailoring and scrapbox salvage. So we have five of our members that are doing hosting for tourists to really get that more hands on in person field.
[00:04:10.020] – Emily Barker
But the conference will be a full day of all sorts of great speakers and exhibitors, and I can’t pass up the opportunities. Thanks, Weebly, for sponsoring. We’re very excited that you are helping us with making this a great, successful conference.
[00:04:25.420] – Garr Punnett
Well, I think we can jump right into I’m so glad we’re involved. There’s a special place in my heart for Minnesota too, because I don’t know if I quite qualify as a Minnesota, but I spent a significant time there as a kid through high school, and so a lot of my network is there too. But it was actually Minnesota that really started to spark my own interest in recycling and reuse in circular economy. I want to start this out at least. I was talking about this because I use what you told me at the time when we met about the unique identity that maybe Minnesota have around reuse and circularity and recycling. Without giving it away on my end to the question, can you share with our audience what you think of sort of that Minnesota identity and how it’s tied to these types of systems?
[00:05:17.620] – Emily Barker
Yeah, the thing I love about reuse here in Minnesota is, like you said, there are a lot of reasons that people come to the table. I come from a couple of different reasons. I’ve always considered myself environmentally inclined. Sustainability has been an important thing since I was a kid. Reuse was just part of the ethos of what I grew up with. It was economic, partly just based on what my family had access to. And I didn’t grow up in Minnesota, but I’ve learned since I’ve lived here for 16 years that a lot of folks here just really like to be selfsufficient. There’s very strong DIY attitude and that ability to reuse and take what we have. We have a strong agricultural economy in Minnesota and I know a lot of folks in greater Minnesota partly because of access, but just partly because that’s what the culture is. They Rheaply embrace that and then in the Twin Cities we have a lot of different businesses. It’s a great community where there are many thrift shops and repair shops and I think that that kind of goes with that self-sufficiency, but also that really strong dedication to environmental activism and environmental.
[00:06:28.630] – Emily Barker
I always tell people that the Minnesota Pushing Control Agency was formed the year before the United States EPA. And so we have a strong commitment to the environment and protecting the earth in this state and it’s been around for a really long time. And so I think that those things all come together. And one of the things I really like is that Reuse provides space that regardless of your various affiliations. Whether that’s political or different things. Where there can be a lot of division that reuse. There’s a space for everybody at the table regardless of why you come and why you want to do it. Whether it’s access and making sure that folks who need access to used goods. Repairing goods. Have that or like me with the environmental side or whatever the reason is. And I think that the Minnesota kind of way that things are here really supports that. And we are one of a few organizations, very few of a statewide kind of trade group for reuse. And I think that there’s a reason for that. We’d of course love to have more folks do the same and we connected with others in other parts of the country, but it definitely is a very Minnesota.
[00:07:36.030] – Garr Punnett
I don’t even think I probably understood the ethos that was being baked into me probably at the time. So again, I always have that to Minnesota to credit when we get to these the trade organizations, when we get to what reuse Minnesota is providing. What has there been in terms of an evolution? You all have a significant member base now of just really interesting organizations that are dedicated again towards reuse, recycling, repair. But what has that been like in terms of the evolution of that conversation and probably the official nature of that organization? I think it’s one thing for these organizations to exist in silos, but a whole other thing for them to finally come together under a banner and push towards more either political initiatives or even just societal community initiatives. What has that been like?
[00:08:29.260] – Emily Barker
Yeah, I think early on there were a lot of folks who were just very involved in the reuse world and like a lot of smaller groups that really want to come together and build that community. It was all volunteers, they decided to come together. Fortunately, the Pushing Control Agency, which I mentioned before, did provide support when the organization was founded and they helped establish that. It wasn’t always called Reuse, Minnesota. It was the Reuse alliance. And there was some connection to some other national stuff before and for a few different reasons that changed. And the folks who were very involved were folks from the University of Minnesota, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, which is Duluth area, where they were excited about this work, and others who are running businesses that said we really need a voice, whether that is for funding at the government level when it comes to policy and we just really need to represent ourselves better. We don’t feel like we’re represented necessarily reuse businesses. I always say it’s a very unique place thing to do, right? It’s not like a hardware store where you’re ordering out of a catalog for your supply.
[00:09:45.460] – Emily Barker
If you’re running a thrift store, you’re getting what people give you, including all of the garbage that comes with that sometimes and trying to sort that out and having expertise, whether it’s staff or volunteer. And so I think that they just realized that there was a need to have a common voice and also to build that collaboration, the energy that comes from any sort of intentional community. And the organization has evolved over the years. Most of the funding early on was just memberships. We have been able to get some grants through the state of Minnesota, the Environmental Trust Fund, which is through a legislatively designated process and we had a grant through that before. And there was a management company that helped run the organization for a few years and then they got another round of background. That’s partly what my position was initially funded through. So they’ve been able to say that this is valuable to the state of Minnesota and reaching those environmental goals and the state has agreed that it’s worth funding. So that’s been really exciting.
[00:10:50.110] – Garr Punnett
You’re essentially laying out a playbook here of how to create an aggregate for that voice. What would you say is maybe is there a secret sauce? Is there maybe some more learnings that you’ve had? You’ve been in executive director position for now, a year, where someone who might be saying, man, I don’t know where the voice is in my community, I don’t know where it is in my state or my city. What can you provide to them in terms of additional roadmap or additional knowledge where they can say, oh, maybe I could do this or maybe I could actually start to collect these voices?
[00:11:19.640] – Emily Barker
Yeah, well, I think one thing that kind of goes back to something I mentioned earlier is to not necessarily just look in the same boxes you’re already in. I think thinking outside of the typical, the easy, comfortable place for me to be is sustainability and environmental stuff, right? That’s what is ingrained in me as my entire life. But I realized that there’s a lot of other reasons or like businesses, but that’s not necessarily why they do this work. And so I think looking for the potential partnerships, the allies that you might not see typically in one bucket or the other most of the time, and really looking for those ways to connect across partnerships and help others make those connections, that’s what we really value. I love when we have a meeting and I said, well, do you know this person? And just recently we had a gal who runs the Minnesota Diaper Bank, which is for those young parents, maybe who are parents of any age that have a little one they want to use reusable diapers for. And they don’t want to buy all that stuff because it’s expensive. So they can join us as kind of a library membership and then they can upgrade their sizes.
[00:12:29.270] – Emily Barker
And I said, well, are you part of one of our other members is donate good stuff. And she has an organization, she has a website that’s all these places that people can donate materials. So if you are a nonprofit that’s looking to use towels for pets and things, you can put that need up there. I said you should really become part of this because then people can donate these supplies to you. And that’s really where my brain I love this. I worked in government for eight years before and that’s what I always love with making those connections. And I think that that’s the thing that I would tell people is if you have folks who like making connections, this is the type of organization because you can see those pathways, connect those dots that maybe can be hard to see sometimes. And I think Rickley does a lot of that too. You’re all based on is making connections. And so I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed getting to learn more about your organization as well. But I think that’s a big thing is really being focused on making connections that are maybe the traditional ones.
[00:13:31.220] – Garr Punnett
I think that’s so interesting because again, you’re speaking to network effects, you’re speaking to connecting solutions. For anybody listening, there’s a vulnerability that does come with that, that once you start doing it more frequently and you see the serendipitousness and the nature to it, that’s when it starts to get fun because then you’re just being helpful. You’re helping connect because everyone has different information pockets. And so the more you share, the more that people then start to trust you and start to really work through the network and create solutions. And so I’m such a fan of that. I used to be so insecure about sharing information because I was like, oh, it feels like an imposition. It’s not. It’s always good. It’s always better to share. It better to try to make those connections in your community because then that’s really how this stuff grows. So I’m all for that and I love that you phrased it that way.
[00:14:24.370] – Emily Barker
I think, too, the other piece I’ll add is in the reuse space, there’s a lot of that that is very much kind of in the traditional economy where you buy and you sell items and items are maybe donated later. There’s a lot of them in the sharing economy. And I think sometimes there is that feeling like that the sharing economy is in competition with the buying economy. Right? And I navigate that sometimes too, because it’s like I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. They both are part of this circular space we’re trying to build, this regenerative space that we’re trying to build. And I think that can be a little bit of attention for folks who are used to the kind of very transactional one that involves dollars and returns and things like that. And I think that that’s something that reuse opens up space and that we want to network. And why I like having so many members that are also in government because there is a need for the policy piece, too, that maybe hasn’t always been there. And so I think that’s what I like is it provides space for other conversations that can sometimes feel tricky to navigate in other spaces.
[00:15:30.970] – Garr Punnett
Absolutely. I think this is where, again, you’re absolutely right in terms of it’s so easy to say, oh, that’s going to be competitive with our offering. We shouldn’t do that without also then starting to realize, oh, but maybe there’s an unknown. Maybe there’s more magic that can happen once we sort of open the doors and open up to more creative business models or take back models or whatever, or even reuse models within the community. This is the first time I’ve ever done this of referencing a previous podcast we did, but in a podcast we did with Karen Dilly, she mentioned that their company started to open up new business pathways for consumers who are buying a used product, then understanding and trusting a brand and then buying more new product of that brand. And so it was like reused, then opened up an opportunity to trust a brand and invest more in that brand, which I loved because you see that similarly probably too with renting models where you might want to take something for a spin before maybe you end up sort of purchasing it. And I know you all have some members that might be a tool library in which they do the same thing with the Minnesota tool library where you get to maybe try some stuff or even fully invest in that membership and be a part of that community or try some things that might end up resulting in you buying a part of another tool or buying something from that brand.
[00:16:53.430] – Emily Barker
And I think some of what comes into that, for example, I really need to get because of the way I have to travel. I really want to get a plug in cooler, right? One that’s like, I don’t have to buy ice for you all the time. And I put out actually in my bins and Group. Does anyone have one that I can borrow? Because this is a significant investment. And one thing that drives me crazy is there’s planned obsolescence for everything, right? So it’s like, if I buy one and I might spend however much they cost, I don’t want to get one that’s like, going to die in two years and I want to try it out and see if this is actually what I want. And I think that that’s right. You can do the borrowing, you can do the sharing. There’s also this piece of durability. Okay? I know that this has been used by this many people. This company really makes things because I think while we advocate for buying second hand whenever possible, reality is there are certain things that folks are just going to buy that are new, but we would like to say, okay, buy things that can be repaired when you do need to buy.
[00:17:54.390] – Emily Barker
Buy things that can be repaired by things that are meant to last. Buy things from companies that support your right to repair, which is another reference to policy work that we do. But it’s beyond just the policy, right, that you want a company I invested a few years ago in a winter jacket from a company that intentionally wants people to repair their stuff. They don’t want you to buy a new jacket every couple of years.
[00:18:16.640] – Garr Punnett
I wonder who that company is.
[00:18:18.610] – Emily Barker
Do you want me to tell you?
[00:18:19.840] – Garr Punnett
Yeah, please. Absolutely.
[00:18:23.050] – Emily Barker
They’re well known for this, right? And of course they’re not perfect. They know it, but they also do have an ecosystem different than a lot of other companies. Now, hopefully more companies will see the value of making products that last, but that is part of it, too. And my comment about ranking prepare is another space where we get into the policy side, where it’s like, I recognize that some days people are going to need to buy a new appliance, so I want them to be able to buy one from a company that actually wants you to fix it when it apart breaks and not buy a whole new thing when something goes out. And I just had to replace the six year old fridge because the motor in the back stopped spinning. And every company I called said, well, you can wait three months for a new one. It’ll cost you $500, and I can’t guarantee it will last more than another six months. And it’s like, this is crazy. And so that’s where we try to also get into that space that’s maybe not just the reuse side, but the repair side, where it’s advocating for products that actually can be repaired too.
[00:19:25.530] – Emily Barker
And I like that piece as well.
[00:19:27.390] – Garr Punnett
Well, you actually led yourself into my next question, which is great because I wanted to learn more about Right to Repair in Minnesota. What has that been like as a journey?
[00:19:38.170] – Emily Barker
Yeah, well, Right to Repair in Minnesota has been introduced for several years. I am not exactly sure how many years, but like all policies, repeated sessions, it takes a few sessions and you got to get enough of the folks to say yes, this is worth it. We did get a pass in the House of Representatives this year, which was exciting. That was the first time it made it through one of the chambers. Unfortunately, it didn’t get that. But as I sort of tell people, not a lot happened in the Minnesota legislature this year, just in general, which was too bad. But that’s how it goes sometimes. We are working on some other avenues though, like litigation type stuff that’s happening at the national level in other states where there’s potential for looking at like antitrust or things like that through that. I just recently learned, though, that Minnesota does not have a price gouging law, which was an interesting thing that perked my ears. So that a company that does or any individual that does price gouging, there’s no law that says they can’t do that. And I thought that’s very interesting when it comes to rates repair and who has access to parts and selling things.
[00:20:48.430] – Emily Barker
And it kind of changed. I thought, well, maybe that’s something we need to also be advocating for because it impacts sure, you can buy the parts to repair your smartphone, but they cost more than the phone itself. That doesn’t really work. Yeah. In Minnesota we will kind of see how the midterm elections go and see how the next session looks. But we do have some good support for other potential avenues. The other thing that was kind of exciting is there is some work at the national level. Senator John Kerr from Montana is supporting right to prepare for agricultural equipment. And I’m from Montana originally. When I was back home, I got a chance to meet with his staff and learn from them what they’re doing and not sure that anything will happen before the elections, but I think there is some potential at the national level just because farmers need to be able to fix their stuff.
[00:21:41.230] – Garr Punnett
I was going to say that’s. So community led in that way, which is again, it’s all about being able to just fix and use, but speaks to as we started off of that independence and the ability to sort of address it in the time and need that it takes to do something and not rely on complicated systems and business models to address maybe an urgent need of fixing something.
[00:22:02.360] – Emily Barker
Exactly. And it’s one thing if you have access to the parts that don’t have access to the tools right, or the diagnostics. And that’s where it becomes an issue for a lot of folks. One exciting thing is that the state of New York passed legislation that has not been signed. Maybe by the time that there will be, but the governor hasn’t signed it officially, but they have passed right to repair for consumer electronics, so smartphones and things. So we’re crossing our fingers. I want to write a letter to the governor to say, hey, we’re cheering for you from Minnesota here, let’s see this happen. That’d be great. But I think that there is generally a move, the FTC really reminding folks that warranty protections are very strong in the United States. And a lot of companies have scared folks from pairing their stuff for many years by saying, if you fix it yourself, you avoid your warranty. And that’s just not true. It’s illegal for them to say that. And that’s why some folks have gotten in trouble. And so we’re hoping that that will be some of these early dominoes to really see it cascade.
[00:23:02.790] – Garr Punnett
I love that. I love the work that you all are putting into that. Excuse me. So then what’s next for Reuse Minnesota? We’ve got the conference coming up in October. You all are obviously you’re continuing to do some sort of legislative push that probably, again, sort of peaks at certain times. What’s the constant? What do you all continue to push and what do members continue to look for with Minnesota?
[00:23:32.970] – Emily Barker
That’s a really good question because we’re actually and someone at your organization hopefully got the survey. We are in the middle of a business needs assessment. That’s one of the projects that’s funded through our current grant, through the Environmental Trust Fund dollars, and essentially what our contractor is doing. We’re working with an organization called Native Sustainability, and they are connecting with members as well as other businesses to ask, are you meeting your goals? What are the supports you need? We also have some questions in there about staffing. How have you done with volunteers or staffing or what are your equity goals? We realize that equity plays a big role in when it comes to the reuse conversation. And so they’re doing this big survey that will be wrapped up at least by mid December. But they’ll be at the conference also connecting with folks and reaching out to businesses, not just in the metro, but across the state. We really want to make sure we have a representative sample of folks doing reuse work. And so that will actually help us guide the next several years to say, okay, training is really what’s needed, or we really need you to advocate for funding or policy change and to see what businesses and folks in the review sector really want.
[00:24:47.560] – Emily Barker
So that’s a big thing. The other exciting thing is we just got funding through Hennepin County. They’re one of our members, but through a separate program called Green Partners, they just approved a funding for us to do some curriculum development for high school students. So we’ll be doing a six week reuse focused curriculum with high school students in two high schools in the spring. And so I’ll do some lectures on kind of what reuse is, why it’s different from recycling, why that distinction matters. And then we’ll have some guest speakers, some of our members who will come in and talk about textiles, electronics, and building materials. And so they’ll be talking about kind of giving little different sectors of the reuse world, why those things could be of importance, how they could be potential careers. One of the things I’m super passionate about is helping develop career paths for folks who want to work in reuse, because I’ve looked at our state level things where they have all these apprenticeship programs and save for like mechanics type things or home repair carpenter type work. There’s nothing for reuse. You can get all sorts of apprenticeships when it comes to electrician and all those things, and there’s nothing in reuse.
[00:26:01.960] – Emily Barker
And so I would love to see in the next five to ten years good programs developed for getting folks, knowing how to refurbish electronics, knowing how to repair textiles or alter textiles and things like that, reuse building materials. We have organizations doing that, but it needs to be introduced earlier and getting young folks exposed to those. So that’s why we applied for this. We’re really hoping to use this program as a pilot to actually make a curriculum that high school students could use for high school teachers could use for free. Take that. And working on integrating it with Minnesota educational standards type stuff so they can meet their educational standard requirements, but then also working with younger adults so folks who are maybe out of high school or out of college and looking and starting to build another program and do training that could get folks. So that’s what I’m excited about, hoping to get some funding for that to support that work going forward. The other thing that we are doing is we’re in the middle of impact report, impact analysis. We’re working with, you know, me folks in the waste world know them.
[00:27:09.340] – Emily Barker
They are well established and doing all sorts of data analysis. And so they’re working with us to look at all of the economic information from reuse businesses around the state. And that’s a tricky thing to do to get that data out of we purchase data to do that. It’s a tricky thing. But they’re taking that and building a model. And we did an analysis in 2020 that folks can find on our website if they’re interested, but this will be kind of another iteration to see how reuse impacts our economy and jobs and things like that.
[00:27:45.970] – Garr Punnett
Thank you for all of that. You’ve laid out so much for our listeners to comprehend when it comes to again, you were speaking about the types of funding that you all receive either from members or working with state or local. Municipalities again, or even county, to receive that funding and do that good work. What can people do to help you all? How do they get involved either on the local level, is there ever a call in other states or for people to reach out and see how they can be helpful? What’s the sort of the call to action there other than again, I would highly recommend joining the virtual conference for those that can’t come to Minnesota. But what else could people do, maybe to reach out and see how they can help?
[00:28:32.770] – Emily Barker
Yeah, well, thanks for that question. For me, we would love folks to join Reese, Minnesota. If it makes sense, you can join as an individual, you can join us, your business. I recognize that that’s maybe not practical for everyone, but if you’re interested in supporting our work, we love that we have, like I said, the individual memberships. We also, if you’re part of a company and you’re in Minnesota, that maybe isn’t the reuse business but wants to incorporate reuse into what you do, you want to be more intentional, in fact, like people that you all work with, right?
[00:29:02.740] – Garr Punnett
[00:29:03.090] – Emily Barker
We recently established what we call a supporter membership. So it’s for those larger organizations again, that really want to support the work, but maybe don’t identify that. And so they get all the same benefits as our reuse members, reuse organizations. The only difference is they’re not listed in our directory. And so that would be the big thing. So we would love for anybody that it makes sense to join as a member, support our businesses. Check out our directory on our website, it’s. reusement. Orgdirectry and you can find our businesses there. Connect with them, use the resources that we have. For me, I of course, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say yes, definitely support us. Join, but incorporate reuse into your life. Make it be part of what you do. Educate the young people in your life. Work on starting an organization like ours in your state and reach out. I’m happy to connect. I think being a mentor or learning from each other is one of the things I enjoy the most about this work. And so definitely do that. But I think the other thing is if you see policy that’s introduced in your state, whether it be right to repair or other things like deconstruction that your local community might implement, advocate for those policies.
[00:30:16.220] – Emily Barker
Because the more that they happen in your state or your community, the more we can say, look, this isn’t just one off. Then we can use your successes and we can bolster each other and support each other and just work every day to incorporate that in some way into what you do.
[00:30:32.210] – Garr Punnett
Again, could not have said that better at all. What I would say is if anyone’s questioning it’s, like, how is this relevant to me? If you’re a local business or a local member. We’re at the ground floor right now and we’re doing really cool work. Rios, Minnesota, is doing great work in Minnesota. It behooves anybody to join now so that they can be a part of what will be a more sustainable, maybe even equitable future for our economy. And so you want to see the players, you want to see what the conversation is now? Now is the time to join. So I couldn’t support that message even more.
[00:31:09.100] – Emily Barker
And I will say to you, there will be a special opportunity in the next year because we’ll be celebrating our ten year anniversary. So we will be doing some additional opportunities that you can support us even as a non member starting this fall. So that’ll be fun. We appreciate anybody who’s willing to support.
[00:31:26.210] – Garr Punnett
Well, I’m going to be pushing this message on all of my high school friends that probably aren’t listening, but I will be pushing this message on them soon. So, Emily, thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:31:36.820] – Emily Barker
Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. Excellent.
Other episodes we think you'll love:
28. Sandra Noonan on reusable packaging and scaling circular operations
Chief Sustainability Officer, Just Salad