Clients in Conversation: Protecting our Planet, One “A-ha” Moment at a Time – Part II

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Interview with Mike Gabriel, Lending Manager

Tim Brownell is the co-founder of Eureka Recycling, an RSF borrower and one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the US. Ben Gordon, an RSF investor, works with Global Student Embassy to empower youth to become environmental stewards and community leaders. In both cases, social transformation is at the core of the environmental change they seek.

Click here for Part I

Mike: Tim, Eureka is a successful non-profit in a field that’s dominated by one or two large players. Can you give us some idea of how difficult it is to fight the good fight in this situation?

Tim: It’s important to understand that we are not competing against any of the large waste businesses. We’re actually competing against a paradigm of wasting. I think that’s the challenge for us, that we are bringing forward the idea and the reality that waste is a choice.

We run our non-profit as a mission-driven financial organization. We are driving strategies that have to work and compete against a different economic structure, one in which waste is subsidized, one in which health and environmental costs are externalized.

We are within a paradigm that requires making money in order to run a business. We’re a non-profit but we’re also a social venture, and we participate in this business with no subsidies. That’s very intentional. We don’t take grants that anybody else could take. We borrow money at market rates, so that we can demonstrate that zero waste is an economically viable alternative, not just an environmental and social imperative.

Ben: I used to work in community development banking. One of the most important lessons I learned during that time was that budgeting is about more than financials, and that is especially true for mission-driven organizations. The decisions being made in a mission-driven organization are to allow for greater positive outcomes for people and planet.

This economic structure, Tim mentions, requires a change in financial perspective—a new focus on lowering costs of all types, rather than increasing revenue. In our current economic paradigm, a lot of revenue that we look at requires consumption. We really need to constantly question how to do things differently with less financial revenue, but with greater environmental and social outcomes.

Mike: If there’s one thing that speaks most directly to the impact that you’re having, what would it be?

Tim: I grew up in a time when no one spoke about “zero waste,” and recycling was a small idea. Today, recycling is common, and people have an understanding of its benefit. We exist to expand awareness and consciousness so that the next generation feels the same way about zero waste.

Eureka is a zero waste lab—we are learning how to get to zero. We’re determined and committed because we know how urgent it is to get there, and it requires transforming our relationship with our planet. Our work as a social enterprise is focused on demonstrating the steps, actions, economics, and policies necessary to get there, and our vision is to see this movement as a global transformation.

Ben: We call all of our projects “demonstrations” because the most critical part of what we do is getting people involved.

Our small staff, board, and friends can lead a demonstration to set up a school garden in a semi-rural or urban area pretty quickly. But when we think about broad impact that doesn’t really achieve the larger change we’re going for. Sure, we have this small garden, but alone it’s not going to put a dent in our food system. The real value is in having a demonstration that is created by a large number of hands. So that those hands will be inspired and find another site to do it on—to continue the transformation one person at a time.

Tim Brownell is CEO of Eureka Recycling, the only organization in Minnesota that specializes in zero-waste. He was one of the original founders of Eureka, coming to Minnesota in 2000 to assist in its development. Prior to his joining, Mr. Brownell worked for more than ten years in the recycling field in designing, developing and operating the residential recycling programs in San Francisco, CA and Ann Arbor, MI.

Ben Gordon serves a Board Member and volunteer with Global Student Embassy, an environmental and youth empowerment non-profit. Prior to GSE, he worked in community development banking at Charles Schwab Bank and Merrill Lynch. He currently works in Oakland, CA, Chacraseca, Nicaragua, and Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. Ben graduated with a Bachelors of Arts from Brown University in 2006.

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