Kylee Minick is proud to be part of a small but mighty team who diverted 222,600 pounds of material from the landfill last year — or over 110 tons, roughly the size of a blue whale — by way of materials sold and recycled at Rural Action’s UpCycle Ohio Thrift Store and Community Makerspace at 751 W. Union St. in Athens.

Minick, an UpCycle sales associate, has watched the store grow and change since she first started working there in June 2021. The store and makerspace opened on Sept. 26, 2020, thanks to the efforts of seven community organizations that banded together to purchase the assets of ReUse Industries, which closed in February 2020.

She works at both the thrift store and makerspace, where she sorts items and assists customers. But she also helps in volunteer coordination — in fact, that’s where her relationship with UpCycle began. She had no retail experience prior!

“We have a crew of our regulars who come in every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday,” Minick said. “We have a crew who’s been volunteering with us for two years. That’s how I got hired — I was a regular volunteer.”

From Ohio University students to individuals looking to help out, UpCycle wouldn’t have been able to divert so much waste from the local waste stream last year without its volunteers, Minick said. Rural Action’s Zero Waste AmeriCorps cohort has been a huge help, too. Minick estimates around 30 people per year help process donations.

“At first, it was really hard to go through all the donations that we had with limited staff,” Minick said. “And now since we have the AmericaCorps Zero Waste cohort, it’s been a breeze.”

Over their six months of service, AmeriCorps Zero Waste cohort member Rowan Fahl Matlack has noticed managing donations has become easier with a full cohort. A major part of Fahl Matlack’s service is diverting waste and sorting recyclables.

“We do a lot of recycling. We make sure that as little goes into the trash as possible,” Fahl Matlack said. “That’s the important thing.”

The intentional flow of materials and mission behind UpCycle Ohio aligns with Rural Action’s long standing commitment to zero waste and the work the organization was already doing through initiatives such as the Zero Waste Pledge, zero waste event support, and hard-to-recycle collections — all through the Zero Waste Program, also located at the 751 W. Union St. location. UpCycle fit perfectly into the collaborations Zero Waste has been building upon for years.

UpCycle Ohio also serves as a testament to the power of a social enterprise to increase the scale of what the community can accomplish. The thrift helps find a home for nearly any material and in doing so, has created opportunities for staff, volunteers, and anyone in the community to participate in the larger network of reuse and recycling.

Minick said social media has been useful in creating and fostering relationships with customers and volunteers. UpCycle has been incredibly successful reaching out to young people, locals, and university students alike, through its social media presence, specifically on Instagram (@upcycleohiothrift).

The thrift store has also hosted successful events, including a clothing swap that broke revenue records. The thoughtfulness from staff, volunteers, and customers has gone into every aspect of UpCycle — making it far more than a thrift store — it is a community space that supports the uniqueness and freedom of expression of every individual who walks through its doors.

Minick and others at the thrift work to make it a safe, accessible, and affordable place for people of all ages, sizes, incomes, and backgrounds. She appreciates the value of “old things” – extending the longevity of everyday objects – and being able to provide affordable items to people in need while reducing waste.

“We just want it to be a safe space for everybody to just be comfortable because everyone should be comfortable with who they are,” Minick said. “Every day I see someone and think, ‘I am excited to see what they are going to do with that.’”

A girl sits wearing a red dress holding open a large red book, sitting next to books in the background and foreground.

For former UpCycle manager Sadie Meade, now Rural Action Workforce Development Director, “UpCycle Ohio is a space where both people and things grow.”

“It gives items a second and third chance to be cherished and used for years to come, and provides an environment for people from all walks of life to express themselves creatively, think more deeply about their relationship to objects, consumption, capitalism, and the circular economy,” Meade said.