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New Albany's Bob Braunbeck, the 'Merry Recycler,' Brings Environmentalism and Charity Together

It’s late on Thursday afternoon when a white van with the words “Easy Recycle” pulls into my driveway. Out jumps J.R. (Bob) Braunbeck, the owner and operator, whom I like to think of as the “Merry Recycler.” In business now for more than 20 years, Braunbeck, who turned 70 a few months ago, has developed an impressive business founded on a simple idea: “Recycling costs dollars, but still makes sense.”In 1992, after an exciting career as photographer/pilot for underwater explorer/filmmaker Jacques Yves Cousteau, Braunbeck returned to his native southern Indiana and tried to figure out his next life. It was impossible to replicate the dizzying exploits he experienced in his youth working with the mercurial Cousteau and his family. But this Providence High School graduate was following the growing environmental movement in America, and he decided to build a business in recycling. Then he fixed on something novel: “Why not start a job, not a company?”And the job he wanted was to collect recycling to advance the environmental cause. But the fact was then (and still is) that it’s difficult to make money by selling recyclables to collection centers. You can make some money, but your operation must be very, very large to turn a profit. So Braunbeck had a brainstorm that perhaps only someone with an altruistic side would think of: Why not charge customers to pick up their recycling and to sort and sell it, but,  instead of making profits from the sales, charge enough for pickups to support yourself and give the proceeds to non-profits?As far as he has been able to ascertain, his business model is unique in America, although it make so much sense that like-minded entrepreneurs should see fit to emulate it.On a pleasant summer afternoon, Braunbeck sat down with me on our terrace to discuss his approach to business and to life. He laughs often and his white beard and mustache animate his stories. Oddly enough, try as hard as I could, I failed to make him smile for a photo. I guess he’s serious about his work and wants to appear that way.He said he has always wanted to do something special with his life, and recycling seemed a perfect vehicle. Over the years, he has donated through his business well over $110,000 to a number of nonprofits. The greatest beneficiary has been the Cabbage Patch Settlement in south central Louisville, which according to the report he gave me has received in excess of $34,000. A close second is Community Coordinated Child Care of Louisville (4Cs), with $31,000. He’s a big patron of the arts, with $21,000 going to the Floyd County Youth Symphony and $17,000 to Stage One, the Louisville children’s theater. Other beneficiaries include Southern Indiana Dyslexia, Floyd County Interfaith Council and Trash Force. (These figures, which Braunbeck provided for me, cover the period from January 1992 to November 2011, so those amounts have increased significantly since then.)Braunbeck also carefully calculates the impact of his paper recycling: In his 20-year report, he says that he reclaimed 2,545 tons of paper which, recycled, equals:

  • 152,700 pounds of air pollution;
  • 10,180,000 gallons of water saved;
  • 43,265 trees not landfilled;
  • Energy to heat a home for 1,273 years; and
  • Enough landfill space for 2,545 people.

Not bad for a one-man operation.In contrast to the big garbage collection companies or the municipal trash pickups, Braunbeck’s business is very customer friendly. He credits U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth with being an early fan (long before he went to Washington) who introduced him to other clients. He now serves residential customers as well as businesses. He knows all of his customers by name and is particularly fond of the little dogs that greet him when he arrives. At our house, he always gets down on his knees with our little Pekingese—she greets him in contrast to the wary barking she provides for the regular trash collectors with their big trucks. In an interview with The Vision, the Providence High newspaper, Braunbeck explained that he’s always loved animals, and that was one of the reasons he so enjoyed his work with the Cousteaus.By remaining small, he not only provides good customer (and pet) treatment, he also can smell the roses, especially at an age when many of his contemporaries are retiring from business. “I’m doing something that makes a difference,” he likes to say.Of course, collecting recycling isn’t always without its problems. For instance there are peanuts. You know, those plastic packing materials that may safeguard fragile items during shipping. When customers just throw those into the can, it’s a chore to pick them out. Generally, Braunbeck just drops these off at shipping businesses. If you are a customer, you get the sense of what he can and cannot recycle by what’s left behind in his can after the collection. For months, when half and half containers began featuring plastic spouts, he left those behind. I asked him about that and he explained that it’s OK to leave them now—the recyclers take them.Even though he’s 70 now, he is still thinking of new ideas for his business. “My next dream is recycling catering for parties. I am trying to change the thinking on recycling.” Meanwhile, he carries on regardless of the weather. One very icy afternoon last winter, I marveled at the fact that he had managed to get to our house. Yes, he said, but I just could manage to get my truck down some of your neighbors’ driveways.Braunbeck is full of stories about his days with Cousteau (and the times he was temporarily fired but hired back). In fact, he’s been in touch with New York publishers about writing a memoir, and he is doing that in his spare time at his New Albany home.“I worked with a pioneer for 16 years. It is contagious. I want to be a part of changing the world.” In his own way, that’s what “the Merry Recycler” has done.Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He'll join WFPL's Jonathan Bastian at about 1:30 p.m. today on 89.3 during Here & Now  to discuss this commentary. Read his past WFPL commentaries  here.