Mayor Tom Blake offered the story of finding a discarded frog ornament that was worth a princely sum to support his plan for opening a recycling shed at the South Portland transfer station.

Blake spotted and retrieved the discarded lawn ornament – a frog that spits water – when he dropped off some old household items at the transfer station.

Months later, a friend noticed the ornament in Blake’s garage. “She said, ‘Tom, I think that frog could be worth some money,’ ” he recalled. She took the ornament to an antique dealer, who sold it to a buyer from New York.

Blake made $1,000 in the deal.

Blake’s discovery of the lawn ornament and other useful items disposed of at the town’s transfer station has led him to propose opening a swap shop at the Highland Avenue facility, where people can drop off and take home discarded items that still have some use.

At a May 11 City Council workshop, Blake argued that a do-it-yourself swap shop, located at the transfer station, could reduce the amount of trash residents throw away and the city’s costs to have it hauled away.

Some council members did not seem to share Blake’s enthusiasm for opening a recycling shed, but agreed to forward the proposal to the city’s new Energy and Recycling Committee for further study and a recommendation.

Councilors raised questions about funding a recycling shed in an era of cost-cutting and fiscal restraint.

City Manager Jim Gailey suggested that the city build a recycling barn in the future when it rebuilds the Public Works facility, which is a long-range goal of the city.

Councilor Patti Smith said the city already promotes “freecycling” on its Web site, a system for allowing people to advertise when they have household items to give away.

Blake said he believes that freecycling tends to attract people who want to get rid of large items, like sofas, but does not offer the kind of finds that Mainers delight in discovering at the dump, from books to old stereos.

Blake said he believes that a recycling shed or barn could be operated without extra cost to the city, with the help of volunteers.

He said that someone may want to donate an old shed that is no longer needed, or the city could use salvaged wood to build a simple structure.

Blake’s idea is supported by Green South Portland, a grassroots group that works to find ways to decrease pollution and help the environment.

“The city does provide recycling options for glass, paper, cardboard, etc., but the idea of the swap shop is for household items to be reused by others,” noted Alissa Pashko, a Green South Portland member.

“Items could include a bicycle a child has outgrown, or a lawnmower someone no longer needs because they moved into a condo. We want people to embrace the idea of sharing and reusing.”

Angela Griffiths is a member of the city’s Energy and Recycling committee and Green South Portland.

Griffiths said she sees benefits to operating a recycling shed, such as reducing the trash sent to landfills and incinerators.

In this tough economy, she said, people are looking to save money. A recycling shed or barn would offer for free materials for making household repairs, as well as furniture and other everyday items.

Both Griffiths and Blake said that residents already scour the dump for items to take home, although it is not officially allowed.

“There’s a safety factor,” Griffiths said. “People aren’t supposed to dig around in the dump but they do. If people could drop off items at a shed, there would be less rummaging through potentially harmful or dangerous items.”

Griffiths said her family is a big proponent of recycling. “Our house is filled with castoffs,” she said, laughing.

Town dumps and transfer stations are great places to strike up a conversation, she said. “It’s a good way to promote socializing,” she said. “You run into your neighbor there.”

Blake described himself as “a frequent visitor to dumps and transfer sites … I’m amazed that our city has not been more proactive in establishing a recycling shed.”

“I don’t see this as a big resource issue,” Blake said. “We do not need to spend money to get it done.”

He added that a recycling shed should require minimal time from existing staff to make sure everything is in order at the shed.

Cape Elizabeth has been operating a popular “swap shop” since 1996, when its public works department and recycling committee partnered to open one.

According to the Cape Web site, the swap shop opened to reduce the volume of trash. “Less trash may mean lower tipping costs and less tax money going to garbage fees,” according to the Web site.

Volunteers help to organize the town’s swap shop. The swap shop accepts household items, from curtains to small working appliances. It does not accept old TVs, mattresses or bottles and glass.

Cape Elizabeth’s swap shop is so prized by residents that a recent letter to a town newspaper referred to the dump and swap shop as “beloved” and “a beacon of community cooperation.”

An online real estate Web site that describes the quality of life in Cape Elizabeth even makes reference to the swap shop at the town dump: Cape Elizabeth is “home of the renowned ‘swap shop,’ where many residents have claimed at least one great find. The quality of life here would be hard to match.”


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