Jobs and Profits: Manufacturing With Community Impact

Jobs and Profits: Manufacturing With Community Impact

Half of the hardwood lumber milled in the United States each year is made into pallets. At any one moment, there are more than two billion pallets in circulation. To feed this industry, 2.7 million acres of forest (an area comparable to that of Connecticut) are cut down for pallets each year. While half are used only once, the rest are reused over longer periods of time, but eventually 300 million pallets are burned or sent to landfills every year.

The St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium (NEC) in Saint Paul, Minn., took a look at this problem, and envisioned a creative solution. It imagined making use of some of the three million pallets disposed of annually in Minnesota. WoodWins was born, an innovative business venture that manufactures high quality recycled products, supports the local community, employs individuals with disabilities, and builds an income source to fund the NEC’s other environmental programs.

The NEC is a nonprofit coalition of community organizations whose mission is to provide information, services and programs that contribute to an environmentally responsible community. For 15 years, the NEC has managed a successful residential curbside recycling program for the city. The NEC believes in creating programs that not only satisfy its mission, but are self-sufficient or generate revenue to support the organization.

WoodWins grew out of the NEC goal to create a profitable enterprise that is a model of sustainable business practices. The vision is to promote a local closed-loop recycling business that reclaims locally generated waste wood and manufactures it into value-added products by employing local workers. Such a business will have positive impacts on both the environment and the community.

New Life For Wood

Following three years of research, the NEC officially launched the WoodWins venture in 1999. WoodWins uses wood from pallets, crates, manufacturers’ scraps and deconstructed homes to assemble high quality, value-added garden products, including planters, window boxes, garden benches, bird feeders and bird houses. Each WoodWins product tells a story about the past life of the wood used to manufacture the item.

Production begins when scrap wood is identified and evaluated by WoodWins staff, who collect it from pallet recyclers, landfills, deconstructed homes and wood product manufacturers. WoodWins also works with a Minneapolis nonprofit agency, The Green Institute’s Deconstruction Services, to purchase wood that is salvaged from houses being demolished.

Once collected and sorted, the usable wood is than denailed, cut, sanded, planed and assembled into final products. Special machinery was developed to allow for the safe denailing, cutting and planing of the boards by people with disabilities. The finished products are then sold regionally to garden centers and specialty stores.

WoodWins has succeeded during its first year of sales and production by proving that the manufacturing process works and that the products sell. Thanks to modified equipment and increased efficiencies, production costs decreased by over 60 percent during the first year. WoodWins products are represented in over 30 retail locations. Last year WoodWins diverted 9.25 tons of wood from the waste stream, which equals 4.71 tons of CO2. This contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions has become part of St. Paul’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Building A Green Business Venture

WoodWins began in 1996 when the NEC obtained a “Recycling to Build Community” grant from the National Recycling Coalition and the Center for National Service. This grant supported three years of AmeriCorpVISTA workers, who researched and developed product ideas, conducted a feasibility study, wrote a business plan and began to fund raise for the start-up of the venture. Through diverse funding and technical support from government, private and nonprofit organizations, the NEC was able to hire two full-time WoodWins staff to officially implement the program in 1999.

The NEC targeted the outdoor garden products market as a viable niche for WoodWins. The outdoor furniture and garden accessories industry is performing extremely well and experiencing rapid growth. The number of catalogs and garden centers selling garden accessories such as planter boxes has increased substantially over the last few years.

An important part of the WoodWins mission is to employ and provide training for disadvantaged residents. Job training opportunities are needed in Minnesota despite low unemployment rates; there is an estimated job gap of about three persons competing for every low-skilled job opening in Minnesota. Over 70 percent of disabled people are unemployed and in competition with other disadvantaged groups for the few available appropriate jobs.

Developing Partnerships — A Key To Success

An active advisory group and strong partnerships were critical for the successful start-up of WoodWins. The advisory group — including marketing, manufacturing, banking and design experts — helped to create and focus a feasible plan for launching the business. Three partnerships form the backbone of WoodWins.

Colonial Craft is one of the world’s largest producers of wooden window grills and gas grill parts, with over 30 years’ experience with wood product design and manufacturing. It played a key role in the start-up by designing and building specialized equipment, donating space, and contributing both technical and financial assistance to the NEC. Colonial Craft is a leader in promoting sustainable forestry practices and through its alliance with WoodWins, it will promote use of certified sustainably harvested wood, including recycled wood.

WoodWins partnered with Midway Training Services (MTS) — a Saint Paul rehabilitation center that helps people with disabilities become self-sufficient — to provide the job training component of the venture. Seasonally, a pool of six people with disabilities supervised by two job coaches from MTS work five days a week. They work up to three hours a day each disassembling and denailing the raw materials at an above minimum wage pay.

Recently, the Aveda Corporation, a multinational cosmetics company, world renowned for its use of environmentally sound products and packaging, has committed to a three-year relationship with WoodWins. Aveda will be providing both financial support and technical expertise on marketing and design of the products. Aveda has furnished its Minneapolis and Manhattan Institutes with WoodWins products.

Looking To The Future

During the last five years of development, WoodWins has evolved based upon the needs of the community, available wood feedstock, the technical feasibility of using reclaimed lumber and the market for the final products. While the concept of reuse is not new to the NEC, manufacturing recycled products with wood is still relatively unexplored.

WoodWins is in the midst of implementing the next stage of its marketing plan, which includes expanding its product line, national distribution, leasing of production rights to designs to other nonprofit organizations, and replicating the venture in other locations. The incubation of WoodWins was undertaken to facilitate a cost-effective start-up of the project. Already, the NEC has been contacted by nonprofits across the state and country that are interested in replicating this green trade venture in their own communities. Replication will be attractive to other communities because the NEC will be able to assist them in starting a local wood reclamation and manufacturing business with very low capital investments and risk. The NEC can also advise on how to grow the new business into a profitable enterprise.

Highest And Best Use

As mulch, a pallet is worth $100/ton, as fuel $35/ton, and as value-added WoodWins products over $3,000/ton. Consumers are buying WoodWins products because they are quality, durable, functional and attractive items. Recycling has grown up and WoodWins proves that buying recycled is not just the “right thing to do,” but can also get you the best quality product.

Through the WoodWins program, the residents employed gain “work readiness” skills and the ability to transition their lives from one of dependence on social programs to one of independence. Employers in the community benefit from the availability of work-ready residents. Businesses benefit with a solution to their difficult pallet disposal problem. The community enjoys the environmental benefits of less waste going to landfills and increased economic development in their neighborhoods.


Alex Danovitch is with the St. Paul, Minn.,-based Neighborhood Energy Consortium. For more information visit or call (651) 293-3921. Story Copyright 2001 The JG Press, Inc., 419 State Avenue, Emmaus, PA, 18049, USA, protected by international copyright law. All rights reserved. In Business is a GreenBiz News Affiliate.