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March 2006
Livin’ it up 3R-Style
The Satya Interview with Mark Caserta

 

3R Living. Photo courtesy of Mark Caserta

There’s a new addition to the fashionable boutiques of Park Slope’s trendy Fifth Avenue, 3R Living, a home decor and lifestyle store dedicated to the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—reducing waste, reusing unwanted or discarded materials, and recycling.

Mark Caserta’s environmental background and Samantha Delman-Caserta’s retail experience inspired this Brooklyn eco-conscious store, which opened in the spring of 2004. “Samantha and I were interested in environmental goods but we felt that they were kind of frumpy and plain, things that we just weren’t interested in purchasing,” Mark explains. “We thought, why not open a store that sells goods that are sustainable?”

Much of what’s on 3R’s shelves is made from stuff originally discarded as ‘trash’—glassware from old bottles, vases made of recycled paper, and jewelry crafted from bike chains or vinyl records. Other items are fairly traded and made from sustainable materials, like hand-crafted bamboo cutting boards, Brooklyn-made furniture, and organic cotton towels and linens. 3R is also the local purveyor of Mrs. Meyer’s all-vegan, lovely-smelling, effective, eco-friendly, aromatherapeutic household cleaners—in lavender, geranium or lemon verbena. 3R Living serves as an invaluable resource to their community: people can bring their used batteries, cell phones, CDs, crayons, and other seemingly unrecyclable stuff, and they’ll get it all recycled.

Mark Caserta took a little time to talk with Catherine Clyne about all things 3R.

What is the general philosophy behind 3R Living?
We try to offer a wide range of goods, generally for the home. We sell jewelry, recycled glass plates and cups, cleaning products that lack chemicals like chlorine—all kinds of things that can make your apartment and your life more sustainable.

To give a little bit of background, I have been in environmental policy and politics since I moved to New York almost 12 years ago. I spent a number of years at the Parks Department and was a lobbyist with the New York League of Conservation Voters. My wife Samantha has been in retail for almost 15 years. Her last job was as a buyer with Fishs Eddy, so she knows home goods.

Can you walk me through the process of how something regarded as ‘trash’ ends up on a shelf with a price tag?
It is pretty wide and varied. The furniture made in Williamsburg is made by Scrapile—they glue together scraps of bamboo or woods and make a striped, multi-colored wood that could just as easily be made into shelves and chairs and that sort of thing. We sell some vases made of recycled glass from Spain. People buy [used bottles] at a decent price in Spain, chop them up and melt them down, and create beautiful glass vases. It is sort of an educational tool—it shows people that trash can become something useful.

Spain has a really good recycling program—they look at recycling as an economic tool. One of the things NYC was always struggling with was, we love recycling, but it was literally sucking the budget dry. And as we’ve become better at this, it’s become a revenue generator.

What are some of the recycling services 3R provides the community?
We do battery and cell phone recycling. We also work with a company called Green Disk that takes compact discs, palm pilots and laptop computers. There is another small Minnesota company we work with that takes crayons and melts them down into shapes, which we sell in our store with tree-free paper. It’s a fun little project. We have students dropping off their crayons and they learn about recycling that way.

Where do some of the ‘waste’ items go and how are they recycled?
The batteries go to a recycling company in Michigan. They take some of the really nasty chemicals out and neutralize them before they dispose of them, so they won’t be harmful or leach out of some landfill somewhere. They often find ways to sell usable metals in the open market like most recycling companies do. There’s a different process for every kind of battery, and we can take almost every kind.

Cell phones are either sent to women’s shelters or to a nonprofit that sells them overseas at a lower price or recycles the plastic and metal and everything.

Do you ever find yourself in an ethical conundrum in running a business and promoting environmentalism?
No, I think it is a natural. There are so many designers and companies turning to this right now, it feels right. A few years ago it felt strange, but a lot of people have picked up on this philosophy.

There is an environmental philosophy that says, don’t buy so much, cut back on what you’re doing. But the other side of that is, you and I are both living off of the fact that people are buying things and they’re making money by selling goods. The better way, maybe, is to support an economy where there are more sustainable alternatives. To push for a world where, if you are going to consume, there will be good, stylish, affordable products that people can turn to.

There is a more radical, cradle-to-cradle philosophy that says every company can create a product in which every part could be reused or put in the ground and completely biodegrade. The only struggles we really have is that the companies doing this are small and they are trying to do something that is more difficult. Because of that, the supply is small but the demand is growing. So therefore the prices of environmental goods can be high. Our personal philosophy is to try and keep our prices down and try not to sell things that are too expensive. We don’t want environmentalism to be something for the rich only. There are companies focusing just on high-end goods because they figure this is where it is right now. But we see it as something the middle class can share. The folks that need the most help in the environment are the people who can’t focus on it because they’re poor. It’s not until you reach the middle class that you start people thinking about these things. The really wealthy can buy green buildings and build their own organic farms and live off of them. That’s where we would all love to head, but it’s not quite there yet, not quite affordable.

But I think if everyone does a little bit for the environment, we would all be better off.

3R Living is located at 276L Fifth Avenue between Garfield and First Streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn. To learn more or order online, visit www.3rliving.com, or call (718) 832-0951.


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