Turning trash into treasure
By Heidi Stevens
Kay McKeen has sent microscopes to Ghana, zippers to Ethiopia, textbooks to India and a baby grand piano to a high school on Chicago's South Side.
She outfits classrooms. She turns wax nubs into bright, gorgeous crayons. She collects, sorts and donates hundreds of thousands of books.
She's equal parts environmentalist, Dumpster diver and missionary, and her motivation is simple: "If we don't rescue it, it's in a landfill forever."
McKeen, 59, of Wheaton, Ill., is the founder and executive director of SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education), an organization dedicated to collecting people's unwanted stuff and finding a use for it — from bottle caps and old keys to overhead projectors and, in one case, a 16-foot balance beam.
"It came from a school whose insurance no longer covered gymnastics," Mc-Keen recalls. "We found a magnet school in Chicago that just happened to need a new balance beam."
There's plenty to give the green movement the blues: a global water crisis, a giant garbage patch in the Pacific, polar ice caps melting in the Arctic. But McKeen takes a different approach.
"People should feel excited," she says. "There are some amazing things happening."
Especially at SCARCE headquarters. When you walk through the front door, tidy suburbia gives way to delightful chaos.
Thousands of books line the walls from floor to ceiling. A shelving unit holds containers of American flags, dried-up ballpoint pens, eyeglasses, old keys, wine corks, cell phones and other items that often get tossed.
"It's not trash," McKeen says. "It's resources."
Resources for whom? You name it. McKeen funnels goods to recycling centers or groups that can use them. The eyeglasses go to the Lions Club, where they're cleaned up and distributed to people in need. The Lions Club takes the keys as well, melting them down for the brass and scrap metal. Pens go back to their manufacturer for recycling. Wine corks go to teachers for art projects or Whole Foods for recycling. American flags go to the VFW for proper retirement.
"When I see an American flag sticking out of a garbage can, that drives me nuts," McKeen says. "I've saved a number of those."
McKeen thinks nothing of "saving" other people's trash. "Oh, I'm a Dumpster diver," she says proudly. "I even have a T-shirt."
Some items she'll dispose of in a greener fashion. Trashed fluorescent lights go to a household hazardous-waste site. ("All it would take is one crack and the garbage collector's getting a face full of mercury. You can't have that.") Other items she'll bring back to the warehouse. A flawless, oversize wall clock she rescued hangs above one shelving unit.
The group takes in a constant stream of donations as well. "Thousands of books go out and come in every week," McKeen says.
There's no formal system for connecting donated goods to the people who need them. Instead, the group reaches out to Rotary Clubs, nonprofits, schools and faith-based organizations through phone calls, e-mails and community events. The 12-person (mostly part-time) staff is buoyed by dozens of volunteers each month — ranging from high school kids seeking service hours to eco-conscious retirees.
"People ask who our marketing director is," McKeen laughs. "That would be me. You want to know who cleans our toilets? That would be me."
But McKeen and her organization have a global reach that is staggering in its breadth. A world map hangs on the warehouse's back wall with thumbtacks jammed into places that have received the group's bounty. Vietnam, Estonia, Chile, Mexico, Alaska, China, countries throughout Africa.
"Kay is just an infectious person — in a good way," says volunteer Steve Kenny. "She was one of the original tree-huggers when it wasn't cool."
Kenny, a retired Glenbard South High School science teacher, has assembled a group of volunteers to take apart, clean and replace the mirrors of old, donated microscopes. They deliver them, reassembled, to a local church that organizes missions to Africa.
"We just sent three of them for a high school in Ghana," McKeen says. "But when they got there, we're told, they were better than what the hospital had. So one went to the hospital. The church told us the doctor had tears in his eyes because now he was able to diagnose malaria.
"We're throwing out stuff that can help save lives."
Much of what the group rescues stays local. More than 80,000 books — some donated, some rescued from school trash bins — sit in the SCARCE warehouse waiting for educators to come claim them. McKeen urges teachers from all over the state and every type of school to check out the selection and take whatever they need for their classrooms, all free of charge. (Staplers, binders, posters, yarn, magazines and countless other materials are there for the taking as well.)
"The environment wins, the kids win, the taxpayers win," McKeen says. "It's a win-win-win-win."