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SCENE & HEARD: Recycling can also help restore people

By Larissa Lamson and Cece Gassner
Idaho Statesman

What do you see when you look at an empty wine bottle? Is it an item to be cast aside, added to the piles of other discarded items removed from our view?

What do you see when you look at an empty wine bottle? Is it an item to be cast aside, added to the piles of other discarded items removed from our view?

When Sustainable Futures looks at an empty wine bottle, it sees potential. Not only potential of the bottle itself, but also potential in the process and in people.

Sustainable Futures is a Boise-based nonprofit that provides green vocational training to people who have barriers to employment. In doing so, it is "not only recycling things, but renewing and restoring people," says James O'Dea, the new spokesman for the organization and an internationally renowned leader in sustainability and social justice.

Some 6 million wine bottles a year are shipped into the state to produce Idaho wine. Sustainable Futures is altering that waste stream by recycling bottles from restaurants and consumers, thereby diverting tons of glass from the landfills. And it is doing it with another resource that is often cast aside and forgotten: people who are incarcerated.

The wine bottles take one of several paths. Some bottles are redistributed to local wineries. Some are made into decorative glassware for resale to restaurants and retailers. Broken glass is fabricated into recycled glass countertops that are twice the strength of marble and are UV and freeze-thaw resistant.

No longer a throw-away item, the glass returns to the world with greater function and, in some cases, stronger than before.

Sustainable Futures views human beings in the same way. The founders of the group believe that there is hidden human potential in many individuals who are trapped in cycles of poverty and desperation. They hope the program helps its workers recognize their own value and redefine their futures.

In partnership with a work-release program at the Idaho Department of Correction, participants in Sustainable Futures' glass refabrication program are taught how to use glass-cutting and polishing tools, sandblasting designs, packaging and labeling. Training is also provided on managing inventory, quality assurance, safety, budgeting and simple business planning.

The program also addresses the underlying challenges in the lives of the inmates that often lead to cycles of despair. During the 12-week program, participants are taught skills in mindfulness and positive-solution finding, skills they perhaps never learned or had forgotten during the stress of incarceration. The program endeavors to provide participants with the tools necessary to improve themselves, while fostering and modeling work ethics and life skills.

The recycled glass project is just the initial project for Sustainable Futures. Plans are in place to expand to other sustainable economic development projects such as home sustainability assessments and solar panel installation.

Sustainable Futures began with six women and could potentially include 50 by the end of 2009. The program, which is working to go national, is being viewed as a model for others that wish to replicate it across the U.S.

O'Dea has served as the director of Amnesty International's Washington, D.C., offices and is immediate past president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization dedicated to the study of consciousness. He will be speaking in Boise at a conference sponsored by Sustainable Futures in June.

O'Dea is also developing a set of metrics to be used for measuring attributes of success in the participants before, during and after the program. He will assist with publishing the program in handbook form, to aid people leaving prison with their transition back into society.

"Since the model for Sustainable Futures is being created for replication across the U.S., James' assistance will be instrumental in achieving the goals of creating green-collar jobs the new presidential administration is envisioning," says Dr. Lisa Scales of Boise, one of the founders of Sustainable Futures. (Scales is also one of the forces behind Boise's Green Foundations Building Center, which sells environmentally friendly countertops, flooring, paint and more.)

By providing a caring and positive environment as well as a wider range of personal and job skills, Sustainable Futures aims to increase the chance that participants will be healthy and productive citizens upon their release.

Just like the glass they have helped recycle, they will return to society stronger and with a new purpose ahead of them.

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