In the fall of 2018, Jamie Facciola posted a photo on her Instagram page of a dingy, cushioned chair that she’d come across while walking in her neighborhood of Temescal. October happens to be upholstery awareness month. “I have to talk about orphaned furniture,” she wrote in the post. “In my neighborhood, it’s everywhere. We’re literally drowning in abandoned cool furniture that just needs some TLC to have a new fresh life.”
Facciola didn’t know it then, but within two years that casual post would transform her personal Instagram account into “Furniturecycle,” a page dedicated to examining the “furniture waste crisis” in Oakland.
Illegal dumping has been a problem for decades in Oakland but it has increased 100% over the last five years, according to the city. This year, the public works department has already received over 15,000 illegal dumping service requests. Of those, over 12,000 are for items categorized as “debris” or “appliances.”
The city offers bulk pickup services for most things (hazardous waste, rocks, dirt, and concrete are not allowed). Facciola, however, would like more accountability from city officials about where the bulk-pick up items end up. “This is no longer an acceptable solution if it ever was,” she said of bulk items going to landfill. “The idea that reusability is something that hasn’t been a criteria—we need to examine that.”
Facciola’s grandfather was an upholsterer and she said her fascination with discarded furniture is due in part to her upbringing. But it also stems from an awareness that people’s consumeristic habits of discarding old, but still useful furniture, often by illegally dumping items on Oakland’s streets, is intertwined with climate change. Facciola, who has a background in environmental science and corporate sustainability, noted that our current economic model is based on “infinite consumption,” whereas consumers are no longer buying bulky yet well-made pieces, opting instead for flimsy, decorative, and easy-to-replace furniture at retail chains like IKEA.
Facciola wants more people to see the value in repurposing furniture. She hopes to promote an ethos of “keeping materials in use at their highest purpose, for as long as possible,” rather than disposing of them at our convenience.
During walks around her neighborhood, Facciola sees all sorts of discarded furniture: everything from chairs in good shape that could easily be cleaned and used by someone else, to sofa chairs that simply need to be reupholstered, and illegal dumped items not correctly set on the curbside for the local bulk pickup.
She would rather see furniture reupholstered than abandoned on the street in hopes that someone else will see its value. “It is such an undervalued skill, to take imperfect things and make them beautiful,” she said. Reupholstering, she noted, is good for both the climate and the local economy. In Oakland, there are still more than a dozen upholstery shops still in business.
This was the basis of how her personal Instagram account turned into “Furniturecycle.” She wanted to pay homage to upholsters across the country who, like her grandfather, gave new life to furniture. But without direct access to a shop, she decided to scout for items that she could photograph, like the old chair in that first Instagram post.
“As you can see, it’s my most liked post ever,” Facciola said “It’s amazing, and that was me just taking a chance and wanting to support the cause, using what I had access to.”
For some, seeing furniture out on the street might not be perceived as part of the climate crisis. But organizations tracking the impacts of furniture waste paint a clear picture: home furnishings produce 9.7 million tons (6% of the U.S. total) of discarded waste annually, and furniture is the third-highest contributor to deforestation (paper is number two, and buildings take the number one spot), according to the Sustainable Furnishings Council, a nonprofit based in North Carolina, comprised manufacturers, retailers, and designers.
About a year after that first photo, local media took notice of Facciola’s social media documentation, and she knew then that she’d need to do more than just post her findings on Instagram to help combat the crisis. It was through her appearance on journalist Pendarvis Harshaw’s Rightnowish podcast that the Sustainable Furnishings Council found her and invited her to present her findings on furniture waste.
And then the pandemic happened.
The shelter in place order gave Facciola free time to look into all of the photographs of furniture that she had collected over 15 months.
Within a two-mile radius around her North Oakland neighborhood, she counted over 600 pieces of discarded furniture, weighing over 50,000 pounds—and 89% percent of the items were reusable. “I can’t know about these numbers and do nothing about them,” she said. “And if you scale it up to the state, it’s at 89 million, and if you scale it up to the country, it’s over 750 million pounds in just over a year, so it’s staggering numbers.”
She manually calculated all of the data from her photos during the period between January 2019 to March 2020, using five metrics to categorize the furniture condition: like new, imperfect, not usable, incomplete (needs work), and unclear.
She found that seating furniture—couches, loveseats, and chairs—made up the highest number of items, followed by storage furniture such as desks and bookshelves. The statistics that she gathered account for a fraction of just one Oakland neighborhood. Facciola knows that furniture waste is a massive problem all over the country.
“I declared it a furniture waste crisis. That’s how furniturecycle was born,” Facciola said of her Instagram project turned solutions lab.
Furniturecycle is starting off as a newsletter that will share data and findings on everything related to furniture waste. “I really want to tell the story from the bottom up. I’ve worked in that field. I’ve worked alongside the upholsterers. I’ve worked with the secondary markets, and we need to shine a light, we need to understand, we need to support, and we need to invest.”
Facciola hopes that other community members who care about the planet and want to find viable and long-lasting solutions to furniture waste will join her.
“Furniturecycle wants to examine and reimagine furniture’s future.”