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Damon Carson, a veteran waste guru, likes to gamble. And he puts his wages on industrial hand-me-downs, banking that he can procure and rehome some of the weirdest stuff, even if he hasn’t mapped out a market for the goods.   He’s having a winning streak. His company, repurposedMATERIALS, is on target to save 16 to 19 million pounds from landfill burial in 2023.

Arlene Karidis

September 25, 2023

6 Min Read
Repurposed Materials
Repurposed Materials

Damon Carson, a veteran waste guru, likes to gamble. And he puts his wages on industrial hand-me-downs, banking that he can procure and rehome some of the weirdest stuff, even if he hasn’t mapped out a market for the goods.   He’s having a winning streak. His company, repurposedMATERIALS, is on target to save 16 to 19 million pounds from landfill burial in 2023.

What he sells has become obsolete to the industries they first served but still has value, at least to someone else.  His job, as the company name suggests, is to repurpose, a practice that is more or less an offshoot of reuse, with the product remaining in its original form with, at most, minor tweaks. But, unlike reuse, its function must change so that it can live on. Some of the most frugal-minded waste aficionados call it “creative reuse.”

“As more businesses and industries place greater emphasis on landfill diversion and sustainable practices, we’re finding our concept of repurposing really resonates,” Carson says.

People drop into his six thrift stores across the country, a model similar to Habitat for Humanity ReStores, but the wares they find there are not for your everyday home goods shopper.

Take old firehoses dotted with pinholes. They no longer pass rigorous pressure tests, so they have to be retired, but as the old adage goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Carson has sold tens of thousands of them that have come back as dock fenders—a poor mariner’s bumper—or as boat chafe guards or even dog chew toys. Mega volumes of cash register sneeze guards, COVID leftovers, now function as greenhouse windows, among applications that clear plexiglass is good for. Then there was the one-off from Molson Coors: 35,000 pounds of expired sugar the beer maker couldn’t use; but a beekeeper could. It went into sugar water to supplement his colonies’ diet.

Carson does nothing to the roughly 450 semi truckloads of inventory flowing into his warehouses each year. He doesn’t even determine who might want the goods, much less for what purpose. That job is left for the new taker.

He’s busier working to get peoples’ attention, figuring that if he rounds up a diverse and large enough crowd to check out the merchandise, some folks in the masses will stumble into the ideal find. He’s done well at it, luring what has mushroomed into a huge following on social media and through a weekly e-newsletter. These outlets serve as a “storytelling” platform, a place to showcase “before” and “after stories” in words and pictures. 

“It captivates people to hear how castoffs and discards of American industry are reborn. They are fascinated to see new ways materials are used that they never would have thought of, and to hear of the problems they solve,” Carson says.

More times than not, whatever comes in gets a second home, which may seem surprising considering the repurpose team meets a lot of unpredictability in their work.

Every deal is different. Among one day’s incoming stream is a sea of firehoses; the next day it’s a few hundred thousand pounds of turf from a football field. Carson doesn’t know if what’s sent his way will land with the copper miner in Arizona, the architect in New York City, or the cattle rancher in North Dakota. He can’t be certain he can sell a dozen truckloads of thinned out conveyor belts, or how long it will take if he can move them.

Still in 13 years he’s gotten pretty good at sizing up a throwaway’s marketability to guide his procurement decisions. Those decisions are based on several key features.

“If it’s generic, versatile, and adaptable, and if it’s uniform (think a truck load of two by fours vs a random lumber pile of all sized boards) I’m willing to roll the dice,” Carson says.

His first purchase was 20 old billboards in 2010 that he bought from a Denver outdoor ad company then sold to farmers who used them as covers for hay bales. He had no big business plans. He was busy running a kiddie ride restoration business, which he launched after selling a Colorado trash-hauling operation to Waste Management (WM).

A guy doing air brushing for him happened to mention in passing that old vinyl ad boards made great drop cloths for painting. Carson hadn’t forgotten his waste-toting days when he saw perfectly good materials tossed in roll offs, and the very picture of that drove the wheels in his brain to turn.   

“I started thinking of different ways those billboards could be used. One thing led to another, then after I sold the first billboards I was talking to a customer and somehow rubber came up. I Googled it and ‘conveyor belt’ pops up.”

He asked himself, what happens to end-of-life conveyor belts? He found two rolls of rubber belts for sale, posted them on Craigslist, and they went fast, so he bought some more, and construction companies snatched them up to use as protection to lay under heavy equipment.

“Somewhere along the way we got more and more inventory and of different types. Here we are 13 years later with more products than I can count,” Carson says.

And that’s while turning down plenty of propositions. repurposed said “yes” to 18 million pounds this year but said “no” to about another 50 million pounds.

repurposed partner Titan Environmental markets its clients’ waste, seeing that it’s repurposed, reused, or recycled. The company came to Carson when Purdue University had some stadium seats it didn’t want anymore, and again when an amusement park was looking to unload some old assets.

“The repurposedMATERIALS team was able to take nearly 80 tons of amusement park equipment and furniture from our customer, which allowed us to offer them significant savings by lowering their landfill disposal costs, while finding new life for the materials,” says Brandon Titus, owner Titan Environmental.

Neil Seldman, director of the Recycling Cornucopia Program of Zero Waste USA, has long pushed reuse, but he’s no stranger to its next of kin, repurposing. He shares his thoughts on both.

“Reuse is the highest form of recycling as it puts useful products back into the local economy and extends their life, keeping them out of the waste stream. Repurposing is the next form of recycling as the used product also enters the local economy, albeit for a function other than it was [originally] intended for.

“Repurposing could be as simple as creative reuse of surplus school art supplies as is done by the Repurpose Project in Gainesville, Florida— to pet blankets from mattress stuffing as is done by nonprofit Saint Vincent De Paul in Eugene, Oregon,” he says.

repurposedMATERIALS is gearing up to extend its inventory to chemicals and ingredients, equipment and machinery, and is also eying real estate.

“Almost anything that is obsolete to its primary industry is of interest to us,” Carson says.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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