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Lorraine Kerwood Headshot

Evolution of a Trash Picker

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When I was growing up, my siblings and I would often outfit our home, our rooms and ourselves with discarded items found on the curbs of Philadelphia, where we grew up. Furniture, lighting, clothes, building materials -- you name it, we could find it right there on the street. The trick was to get to it before it rained. Back then it was thought of as something "poor people did;" we were referred to (negatively) as "trash pickers." Fortunately, times have changed and now I am called a "Master Recycler."

Most of my siblings and I still look at the world with our trash picker eyes. One brother routinely clears his rural street of waste, in the process gleaning reusables he can redistribute to people who need them. Me, I focused on the recapturing of electronic waste, building a thriving nonprofit to support my "habit." Over the years, NextStep Recycling has recycled over 10 million pounds of electronic waste -- and more importantly refurbished and redistributed back into the community even more electronics.

Thankfully, my siblings and I are not the only folks coming together to (re)capture some of the 4.4 pounds of waste the average U.S.'er creates each and every day. Turns out we were right -- there is great value in our nation's discards. Not only can they be redistributed to people who couldn't otherwise afford them, but it turns out that reuse is anywhere from 4-10 times more energy-efficient than recycling: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, right?

Riding my bike to work these December mornings, I see holiday lights dangling out of trash cans, televisions abandoned by the roadside, and household electronics stacked precariously by the curb along with cardboard, ribbons, and packaging material. Did you know we U.S.'ers generate about 25 percent more waste in November and December? Obsolete electronics end up in the landfill, along with the ribbons, cardboard, paper and block foam. Today's sustainability question is: If you replace your existing computers, laptops or televisions during the holidays -- what will you do with the items you will no longer use?

Some of us are lucky enough to live in communities that have created take-back programs for nonfunctioning or working-but-obsolete electronics. Of course this is great, but these programs focus on recycling -- which means computers, cell phones, TVs and other electronics that could positively impact a child's education or an adult's opportunity to apply for jobs go to the shredder. Programs like NextStep Recycling and other Microsoft Registered Refurbishers focus on reuse - creating community sustainability by addressing the three E's -- education, employment and the environment.

So consider all of this, this holiday season. See if you can't find a place near you that will take your obsolete electronics and redistribute them to someone who can use them. All reputable facilities will wipe your stuff clean as a whistle -- some will even destroy the data-holding hardware right there in front of you, if you prefer. If you can't figure out what to do with your stuff, shoot me an email: lorraine@nextsteprecycling.org -- and I'll help you out. I'll even send you an honorary "Trash Picker Extraordinaire" certificate, and tell my siblings about you efforts to clean up the planet and support others in the process, one electronic device at a time.

This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Points of Light to honor Loreal Paris' Women of Worth initiative. Women of Worth honors incredible women who are making a beautiful difference through their dedication to philanthropy and their passion for improving the world. The 10 women being honored this year were selected from thousands of nominations. Each of the honorees received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oreal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning April 2013, please visit womenofworth.com.

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