Future Perfect New Lives For Old Objects
In Montreuil, the Collecterie resource center is fighting waste by recycling trash—and generating jobs.
“Here, we take care of broken, abandoned, degraded things. And we do it with broken, abandoned, degraded people. Objects are our medium to rekindle human vigor in our urban community.” Léon Wisznia has a way with words. The president of the Collecterie also possesses a militant spirit and hair graying with long experience in community organizing. For several years, the economics professor and former "Sixty-Eighter" had been dreaming of a project for Montreuil, the town that has been his home for 15 years.
It took him almost two years to get there, to find an appropriate site and secure financial support from institutions such as the municipality, the General Council, or Syctom, the household waste syndicate of Île-de-France.
Skills and Imagination
It all started with an encounter between two craftspeople, Séverine and Giuseppe. The latter, who is known as the “dancing carpenter,” says: “We were fed up with working in isolation, everyone for him- or herself. I was a carpenter, she was an upholsterer, our paths often crossed in thrift shops. So we thought that by pooling our skills and our imagination, we could build a recovery center.” Educators and some other interested people joined the project, and in March 2012, the idea took flight: The Collecterie was launched.
The collective started out with a 500-square-foot site, but soon the clutter started piling up and the team scouted for a larger space to store its first collected items. Finally, they chose a 4,400-square-foot warehouse accessible from rue Saint-Antoine, a small, prosperous, and quiet street in the Haut-Montreuil area. On 6 June 2013, the Collecterie opened its doors to the public. Its flyer states that “the Collecterie collects, sorts and transforms.” It is done, the East of Paris has its ressourcerie.
New Structures of Social Economy
Central Paris already has eight. Ressourceries have developed rapidly as new structures of social economy these past few years.
But what exactly is a ressourcerie? It is a place that “collects objects you wish to discard in order to repair and resell them for non-profit purposes,” as the network of ressourceries explains. Based on the idea of reduction, re-use, and re-cycling of trash, the ressourceries follow the principle of a circular economy, feeding goods back into an ongoing cycle of production and consumption.
When you step into the hangar of the Montreuil Collecterie, you feel like you have entered Ali Baba’s cave, except that nothing is stolen here. Instead, everything is reclaimed: “We are basically pulling these objects from their deathbed; they were going to end up in a landfill,” Wisznia explains. Absolutely everything can be found here: furniture, textiles, household appliances, books, electronics, and more.
The Collecterie team has not yet been able to sort through all the incoming items, but they have weighed the flood of objects. At the end of 2013, after barely seven months of operation, approximately 25 tons of trash had been harvested—which is not really profitable yet, as sales do not generate more than 3,000 to 4,000 euros per month. But profitability is not the primary goal here.
How are sale prices determined? “This has been an ongoing question,” sighs Giuseppe. A tall wooden bar stool overlooks the entrance. A note next to it lists the materials that were used for its assembly as well as the hours of labor that went into it—about 20. At the end of the paragraph, a question: “According to you, how much does this item cost?” Everyone is invited to write an estimate on a piece of paper. Perhaps the team will use the average of the estimates to set the sales price.
Learning to repair chairs
The Collecterie has no shortage of chairs. Dozens of them in various colors, sizes, and shapes are hung up along an entire section of wall. “In a way, the chair is our mascot,” the president explains. "It is the object that wears the fastest and at the same time the one that we have the most trouble repairing. Few people know how to put a chair leg back on.”
One of their future projects is thus to set up collective workshops to teach people how to fix chairs. This is another fundamental value of the ressourceries: the pedagogy of change. For the network of ressourceries, raising awareness is a task of major added value: “A ressourcerie prepares its customers and visitors for eco-citizenship in terms of waste reduction (consumer choices, maintenance of objects, second-life products, sorting, etc.).”
Behind the objects, there are people. Following the example of an early ressourcerie, the Petite Rockette in Paris, the Montreuil Collecterie strives to create a social bond in its community. In January 2014, the consortium was expecting an agreement that would enable it to offer reintegration contracts. “Six in carpentry, six in upholstery,” Wisznia is proud to announce.
Repair for reintegration
Florence, who chairs the Collecterie’s job reintegration division, outlines the plan: “For people who have been sidelined from the workforce, who are marginalized and often in critical situations, the ressourcerie is a very able reintegration support tool. Beyond the manual crafts it offers, there are many other domains of learning, such as sorting, sales, display, setting up the premises, design, etc. What’s interesting here is the multi-functionality of it; people are not confined to one single line of work.”
Watching almost-full-time volunteer Roland entice someone to buy the latest refurbished marvel, you get the feeling that the project is working. Roland hopes to soon get a slot for a reintegration contract; in the meantime, he shows up at the Collecterie almost every day. “And this while he is required to be here only twice a week,” Florence smiles. Luc, the civil service volunteer who was hired at the beginning of the Collecterie venture, confirms that the atmosphere is good. He has a trade school diploma as a cabinetmaker and considers the Collecterie an experiment in social diversity. “The most diverse of folks meet here every day, it is awesome. And even though it may not look like much, this kind of place fosters creativity!”
A place of material as well as immaterial exchange, the Collecterie is proof that an eco-responsible project can also be a social incubator. Before the traditional ribbon-cutting—with a ribbon made out of neckties just for the occasion—the president’s inaugural address spoke of “this ancient activity that consists of making new things out of old ones. As commendable as our work is, just like the work of many others, we have not exactly re-invented the wheel here.”