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Dec 312008

By John DeFore

Unless you avoided the conventional gift-buying routine entirely this holiday season, odds are good that you spent much of December in some retail environments whose construction and operation involved a lamentable level of waste.

Outdoor-gear merchant R.E.I. is a few years into an effort to chip away at waste in its stores. This September the chain opened a store in Round Rock, Texas (just north of Austin) that is phase two in its development of a long-term eco-friendly model. Most of its innovations have been tested for over a year in a Boulder, Colorado location, but that store, which opened in October 2007, was a renovation of an existing space. This one, situated in a cluster of stores whose heavy traffic is generated by the area’s only IKEA, was built from scratch to accommodate its green agenda.

I took a tour in early December with store manager Todd Callaway and Daniel Grillo, an “outreach specialist” who coordinates the store’s group workshops and is particularly enthusiastic about convincing locals they can use their bikes to commute, even in Texas heat. If there have been any hitches in the location’s start up, you wouldn’t guess it to speak with these two enthusiastic men, who are clearly smitten with little earth-friendly details a casual shopper would never notice; they took pride in the belief that the store’s physical design was every bit as sales-friendly as any other retailer’s but has a far smaller impact on the environment.

“We’ve redesigned about 85% of the fixtures,” Callaway said as he gave me the first of many breakdowns on the novel components and impressive stats behind the shop’s counters, racks and displays. At the moment, he was standing beside a shelf system made of steel and Plyboo, a plywood-like product whose attractive outer layers are made of fast-growing bamboo.

“The point of this fixture is that when we go to dispose of it later on, it’s fully recyclable. Everything on it can be recycled really easily.” (When the store was under construction, representatives say that 75% of the building waste was recycled or reused in some way.)

Callaway and Grillo were well versed in the levels of post-consumer/post-industrial waste that had been recycled into surfaces all around — from the steel shavings that offered visual appeal in a bathroom vanity and the footwear department’s wall made of sunflower seed husks to the counter made of waste sorghum and Grenite that is “85% post-industrial waste ceramic plus soy.”

Beneath our feet was one way in which the Round Rock venture learned lessons from Boulder. While the upstairs level used a lot of waste-reducing, no-glue carpet tiles from the ultra-green company Interface, the downstairs featured a yielding rubber material whose confetti-like look came from its being composed of recycled car tires and tennis-shoe soles.