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An Unsung Hero: Jim McCann, Recycler Extraordinaire

September 2014

Unsung Heroes

An Unsung Hero: Jim McCann, Recycler Extraordinaire

by Kathryn Fentress

In last month’s Whatcom Watch, the spotlight was on Ginny and Jerry and their volunteering to sail the globe research and educate others about climate change. This month we shift from a global perspective to a local focus.

Many of us wish to make a difference but sometimes feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the problems we now face. For this month’s unsung hero I chose my husband, Jim McCann, who makes dozens of little decisions every day that help create a healthier environment. During this interview, he offered a helpful viewpoint and a number of practical suggestions on how we all can make a significant difference in our world.

I first met Jim in Boulder, Colorado in 1992 when I had a VW beetle and needed some parts. Someone sent me to Recycle Auto Parts which turned out to be a business that housed 10,000 square feet of parts organized on shelves. I found out later it was the largest VW used and new parts inventory in the world.

After 20 years in the business Jim closed Recycle Auto Parts and moved here to Whatcom County in 1996. He was ready for a change and wanted to live close to the ocean in a moderate climate. We live on a 2.5 acre property just outside Bellingham off Samish Way. In our new place, I was again impressed with his `view of things and the variety of ways he lives his commitment to the environment.

Kathryn Fentress: When do think you first became aware of environmental issues?

Jim McCann: “Growing up I was taught the basic values of conserving electricity and water and to reuse things. Later, by the time I was 12 or 13, I began scrounging old bicycles and bicycle parts that had been thrown away. I ran an ad in the local paper and on Saturdays my Mom would drive me around in our station wagon and collect free bikes and bike parts. Then I would mix and match parts until I had another whole bike and then sell it. It gave the bike another life cycle.”

What was your motivation?

“It was a way to make a little money, but it was more something to do. It was plain to me that these things were being wasted, because someone needed to fix them. Maybe a kid had outgrown the bike or it just needed a new tire. Bringing them back to life with the skills I had seemed like the thing to do. My orientation on the planet has been always been about resources and not wasting them, and reducing the impact on resources as opposed to specific concerns about animals per se, wildlife habitat etc. I have a deep concern about the deterioration of our water and air quality. I’m aware that a lot of that deterioration is due to the human contribution of wasting resources — whether it’s leaving the lights on all day or sitting in your car with the air conditioning on while eating your lunch. The area that most interests me is how to make less of an impact.”

How did Recycle Auto Parts come about?

“I was partners in an auto repair shop and tried to source used parts to save the customers money and in some cases if we couldn’t get a new part. In that business I learned that the way salvage yards were structured at that time was impractical. You had to go over there and look around and wade around in the mud and broken glass in hopes of finding a part you needed that may or may not work.

“Through that experience I realized that if you approached the salvage business differently, if you could dismantle a car and take everything off it you could possibly use, then you could send the shell to be crushed promptly and recycled and you wouldn’t need acres and acres of land for all the old hulks. To some extent the yards have now gotten to that, not that they organize the small parts but that they get what they want off the car and then crush it. I felt very strongly that small parts were also very important and salvage yards don’t usually want to bother with them because they aren’t worth the trouble. So my model for that business was to organize everything, clean the parts up, and test them so that a guy could come in on his lunch hour and get a part and know that it was going to work. It is the availability of those parts that allows people to keep their cars on the road. If you go to the dealer and are told that you have to wait three weeks for your part, then your car really isn’t transportation any more, it’s become a hobby, but if you can say: “here it is” or “I’ll have it for you this afternoon,” then the older car remains practical as transportation.”

Why do you recommend keeping cars on the road?

“If you can keep your car running even one more year, it makes a huge difference to the planet in terms of energy resources and the pollution on all these levels. The conventional wisdom is that — and this is in part perpetuated by the car industry — is that newer cars are safer. ‘You might get stranded’ is playing on people’s fear--and the other piece of the conventional wisdom is that if your car is only worth say, $1500 or $2000, it is not worth putting $500 or $600 into repairs. But if you put out that $500 or even $1000 in repairs that may well buy you another year or more of operation. If the car is fundamentally OK and appropriate for your family’s needs, then keeping it running is the best option. A $1000 repair bill may seem like a lot but it is only about three months’ worth of new car payments.

“We all operate under this fallacy of what the price of something is, but that is not even close to the true cost of that thing. So if I think about a new car costing $18,000 with monthly payments of $300+ per month, then I think, “I can afford that price.” But the cost to all of us of making one more car, regardless of the price, is huge. It doesn’t reflect the mining, the transportation of resources, the manufacturing, the shipping of materials across an ocean, all of the chemicals that go into the plastics etc. etc., that is the real cost of any car. It is way bigger than the price tag.”

Why did you set your business up for Volkswagens only?

“I was familiar with them and because those cars lent themselves to being refurbished, they were simpler to operate and fix, and the owners of these cars often had the mindset of maintaining their vehicles as long as possible. It was a commonly held philosophy at that time. They were simpler to maintain and put in another engine and run it another 10 years. There was a lot of do-it-yourself philosophy then. By specializing in one make of car, it was easier to organize and become real experts in this arena.”

Do you still drive a VW?

“Yes, I do actually: a VW Rabbit which gets tremendous gas mileage. I also have a VW bus for hauling things. The Rabbit is an ’81 and the bus is a ’73. I often find myself in a parking lot and realize my car is the oldest one in the lot.”

What have you been doing since coming out here and retiring from Recycle Auto Parts?

“I built a number of houses in the past and when I was younger and learning the construction trades, we did virtually everything, so I am familiar with all the systems that go into a building. So for a while I worked doing small repair and remodeling jobs that I could do on my own. I still enjoy repairing things, solving problems and making a person’s place more comfortable for them.”

And now?

“Now I keep our home and your office and our vehicles going. The buildings are old and require a lot of work on the infrastructure.”

You were a business owner for years, what do you think about credit cards?

“One way I look at the environment is that part of ‘healthy environment’ means a healthy economy. We talk about buying local, for example, and for most people that means buying our food from local farmers or grocery … every dollar we spend is in a sense determining what kind of community we are going to have, whether that money is going to stay here and circulate around among the people who live here or is going to go to Citibank or Bank of America to New York or Chicago.

The use of credit cards, which is so widespread now, means that 3 percent of what you spend with a merchant, (hopefully a local merchant) goes to Visa — leaves town — and goes to the banking industry. With many small businesses, Visa or MasterCard gets 3 percent of that merchant’s gross income. Visa isn’t there in the morning opening up, sweeping up at night, putting supplies on the shelf. So when we walk in the store and go to pay, and decide “Oh, let’s just put it on the card,” it is a simple decision for us, but for the merchant, the impact is huge. Of course, some merchants don’t want to bother with checks for the risk they present, but consider using your debit card, which costs the merchant a smaller fee, or leaving cash for the tip.”

Other recommendations to reduce our impact on the environment?

“Anything you can do to keep something operating longer is very valuable, especially tools and appliances. There are things you can do to help your water heater last longer, for example. Try prolonging the life of something you already have, maintaining and refurbishing your home instead of upsizing. The average home that was built last year in this country was over 2,600 square feet (U.S. Census report: the average size of homes built last year hit 2600 square feet, an all time high that surpassed even the housing bubble years when homes averaged around 2400 square feet). We are continuing to build bigger instead of downsizing to conserve resources. The cost, as we’ve said, for all the building and for the maintaining is a huge strain on our energy resources. Consider getting a tool that’s broken repaired by a local repair man instead of making a trip to a box store for another one and tossing the old one into the landfill.

“Without being obsessive about it, I consider almost everything that passes through my hands before putting it into the trash. There is almost always some better way to reuse or recycle. There are places in town that specialize: places to take old computers, old paint, a place that recycles plastic bags, candle wax. So without going crazy about it, I store old egg cartons and when I have a bunch, I’ll take them to the Farmer’s market for a person who sells eggs. You could say it is a small thing, one egg carton a week or so and most of them break down, but it is way better to reuse them.

We compost almost all our kitchen scraps and recycle paper, bottles, aluminum, glass, and steel. Very little needs to go to the landfill. For a while we were using the large plastic bags to carry our kitchen trash down to the big garbage container. It’s very tidy that way, but then we realized we didn’t need to do that. We could upend the bag into the container and bring it back for another week in the kitchen. When it gets really funky, we throw it away. This amounts to maybe 60 plastic bags a year that don’t go to the land fill.”

Anything else you would like to offer others about small acts to help the environment?

“Part of my definition of environment is the community that we live in, and that has to do with how we treat each other and these interactions determine the social environment that we inhabit. So, when I leave the house in the morning, I try to be positive and supportive of everybody that I interact with. It is kind of a personal program I call “Be nice to the waitress.” What that means is that all the interactions with all the people we greet during the day are really important and that by taking a little extra moment to inquire about how the barista or the cashier at the supermarket is doing makes a difference. By showing some interest in them you can sometimes tell that you may be the only person so far that day who has greeted them as a person — just asking someone how they are doing and striking up a conversation. I use humor, often gentle teasing, as my way of getting people out of the box they are in, or the rut they are in. It is fascinating and very rewarding. And I feel that this ripples out. It is particularly potent when you are talking to anyone who is dealing with the public because they go on to interact with dozens of other people throughout the day--so anything we can do to brighten up their day for a moment affects everyone that they will interact with for the rest of the day.”

Kathryn: There are some things you offered us that will be new to some of our readers and some of them are good reminders to the rest of us. Every small decision each day adds up and makes a difference to the world we live in: whether it be our environmental resources, our economic environment or our social environment — it is all connected and every act is significant.

If you know of someone you would like to see interviewed for this column please contact me at

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