Of the three Rs in the classic green mantra “reduce, re-use, recycle,” it’s the last that is most widely embraced. But despite its popularity, recycling is the least energy efficient alternative of the three. Damon Carson is more interested in the middle one. As founder of repurposedMATERIALS in Denver, Colorado, Carson has spent the last four years keeping millions of pounds of material out of the waste stream by finding creative re-uses for discarded industrial products.
With the help of more than 100,000 farmers, CEOs, architects, and others who subscribe the company’s quirky newsletter, Carson finds new, surprising uses for objects that would otherwise be destined for the landfill. For example, old highway billboards for Budweiser and Coke have now been transformed into hay covers for farmers, boat tarps for fishermen, and pond liners for fish farmers.
“It’s crowdsourcing an idea,” says Carson. “It’s impossible to know all the industries and all their operational problems. We just put out generic, versatile, and adaptable materials, but we don’t know if the cranberry farmer in Michigan, the copper miner in Arizona, or the parks person in Florida is going to raise their hands and say, ‘Hey, we could use that to solve this problem.’ If we put it out to the crowd, we have a chance.”
Every week, the newsletter posts a picture and asks subscribers to chime in on creative possible re-uses. The company then follows up on these community-generated clues. As a result, rhinos at the Bronx Zoo now scratch their hides on what used to be industrial street-sweeper brushes that dusted the grime off city streets every week. The faux green grass of a rooftop garden in midtown Chicago formerly graced Harvard’s hallowed grounds. And the gleaming floors and shelves of Nike stores had a former life as wooden bleachers from high schools. And repurposedMATERIALS is also starting to tackle food waste. Thanks to a tip from its subscriber base, the company recently sold 30,000 pounds of expired cane sugar from Hawaii to a beekeeper intending to use it to make sugar water for his colonies.
This is Carson’s second foray into the waste industry. The entrepreneur first operated a trash-hauling firm that catered to Colorado mountain resort towns Vail and Breckenridge, which he sold to a larger firm in 2002. Several businesses later, a fateful conversation with a painter would eventually lead him to start repurposedMATERIALS. “One day, as he walked out, he said, ‘If you ever get the chance to buy an old advertising billboard vinyl, you should buy it. It would make a great drop cloth for painting.’” The random suggestion took root in Carson’s mind. A few phone calls later, he was the owner of 20 old advertising vinyls, which he easily sold, whetting his entrepreneurial appetite. “Those billboards were the first product I ever had available for sale,” says Carson. “At that point, we weren’t even a company. The technical MBA [term] for that is entrepreneurial screwing around.”
His flirtation with creative re-use became a serious commitment when he added a second line to his billboards: used conveyor belts from mines. The belts became bestsellers with construction companies that laid them over concrete floors to prevent damage from heavy equipment. At that point, Carson had an intriguing thought: “Are there enough byproducts and waste that could get purposed to support a whole business?”
Four years later, the answer is a resounding yes. In 2014, repurposedMATERIALS has diverted close to 2 million pounds of industrial waste from the landfill, Carson estimates. Though it’s far from saving all of the 7.6 billion tons of industrial solid waste that ends up in landfills, it’s a start.
Early this year, the company opened a second yard, in Chicago, and Carson is planning another in Atlanta. He is projecting about $1 million in revenues this year.
Carson still has no long-range plans for his “zero grand vision” company, but what he does have is an abundance of energy. This week alone 300,000-square-foot of trailer flooring, 16,000 yards of ultra-high-end fabric, and 20,000 pounds of expired cheese have come in for him to unload. His afternoons are then spent figuring out who in the world might want those items. “I just love to come to work every day because you never what kinds of products or materials will come across your desk that some company doesn’t want,” he says. “5 p.m. comes around quickly!”