The champions of recycling

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Su Timmerman opened the box, and it quickly became clear it came from someone who liked to run and was somewhat competitive and successful.

The trophies inside were from events such as the Corinth Rotary Races and the 1987 Arsenal City 5K Run i n upstate New York.

The identity of the athlete is a mystery. It’s unclear whether he or she moved to a smaller home, was just looking to reduce clutter or maybe had died and the runner’s children had cleaned out the house.

The trophies are finding a new but familiar purpose thanks to a Madison-based nonprofit that recycles thousands of trophies a year and, since COVID-19, has experienced a massive uptick in donations.

Total Awards & Promotions had been recycling trophies since the 1970s, but due to the increase in donations the company formed a nonprofit, the Nationwide Trophy Recycling Program, to do it. Its 3,000-square-foot space in Market Square Shopping Center is separate from the Total Awards showroom, which couldn’t handle the influx of donations.

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“That’s all people did during COVID is clean their basements and attics and people don’t want to throw these in the garbage,” said Total Awards CEO Janet Gray, whose parents founded the trophy business. “We keep them out of the landfill and pay it forward by giving them away free to nonprofits anywhere in the country.”

When Dave and Donna Gray started Total Awards & Promotions in 1977 from their home on Lake Wisconsin, trophies were primarily sold by bowling alleys, archery centers and jewelry stores. The couple bought a building in Poynette in 1980 and soon people were coming from Madison for the Grays’ products. The couple began delivering to Madison but in 1982 opened a store on University Avenue. In 2013, they found their way to Odana Road.

The Grays always had offered their recycled trophies to area nonprofits but in 2007 expanded the program nationwide. Prior to the pandemic, they would typically receive 10 boxes of trophies a week but now get double that amount. At one point during the pandemic, the Grays were taking in 25 boxes of trophies a day, which created a massive backlog that volunteers are still plowing through.

“The challenge is the volume. But it’s good news because you look at all of these boxes that continue to come in and all of this would otherwise be in the landfill,” said Jay Koritzinsky, a Madison attorney who is also president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. “And when you think about a marble base or a metal figure it will never deteriorate in a landfill, so this is a great cause.”

A fraction of the trophies may arrive in mint condition. Vintage or unique ones are sold on the first Saturday of the month with the proceeds used to cover rent and other expenditures.

The next sale is Saturday, the same day as the Friends of Sequoya Book Sale in a space next door. But unlike works of fiction, biographies or poetry, the trophy sale is literally rewarding. There are the typical sports trophies but also trophies that had been handed out for hitting sales goals or winning poker tournaments or a music contest.

Some are from as far back as the 1920s and 1930s. One features an alabaster onyx stone column with a tennis player on top. One shelving cabinet holds former Telly (excellence in video and television) and Clio (advertising) awards while a center table is filled with trophy cups, like those handed out at auto races or major sporting events. Some are large enough to hold ice and a bottle of champagne.

“We get boxes that are filled with cups like these. But sad to say many of the cups come completely scratched up so they go to metal recycling,” Janet Gray said. “These are the ones that are close to good. If you were to buy this new from us it could be $200, but at the sale they can be $40 to $50 or even less.”

But the majority of the trophies are dismantled with parts used by Dave Gray to build new trophies for nonprofits.

Armed with cordless drills tipped with sockets, volunteers remove nuts from the bottom of each trophy and work their way up, removing steel shafts, tin, aluminum or brass plates, marble and wooden bases, and plastic or resin figurines. Metal pieces too tattered are placed in recycling bins to be shipped off to a recycling facility, but most parts are separated into buckets and bins to make new trophies from old parts.

Volunteers such as Mary Ann Ihlenfeld gather three times a week to work on the trophy disassembly line with hopes of reducing a pile of boxes that fills much of the space. Ihlenfeld, a retired nurse, knows the trophies at one time held special meaning for people but is confident their new iterations will have similar meaning for their next recipients.

“I try not to think about that too much, but they already parted with it, so they made the decision that we should recycle it,” said Ihlenfeld, who can take a trophy apart in less than a minute. “We need to keep as much as we can out of the landfill. I mean, look at all of the boxes we have.”

And some of those boxes hold large trophies.

As Ihlenfeld took apart trophies, Koritzinsky worked on unwrapping newspaper and bubble wrap from a nearly 2-foot-tall third-place trophy for extemporaneous speaking awarded in 2015 at the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky, a prestigious high school speech and debate meet. In the store window stood six purple and gold trophies with purple gemstones handed out at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Two of them were 4 feet tall.

“We try to get rid of all the detail so that somebody else can use it — you know, taking off a (name) plate and adding a plate again,” Gray said. “These all came in with Mardi Gras beads covering them. They almost fall over they’re so big.”

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