Cities have a lot of waste — and municipal recycling programs are costly. As Next City contributor Sarah Laskow reported in “Who Will Pay America’s $1.5 Billion Recycling Bill?”:
The costs involved in recycling are substantial … in the two decades from 1990 to 2011, the increase in containers and packaging showing up in the waste stream had cost governments $1.56 billion to deal with.
While some U.S. cities are still scrambling to separate plastics, others around the world are relying on innovative repurposing approaches to procurement. Detroit piloted a city salvage program to use materials saved before demolishing blighted homes. In Manila, the redevelopment authority converted old city minibuses into tugboats for a river ferry system.
The same ethos is sending cities to Damon Carson, founder and president of Repurposed Materials.
“It’s funny because there are several interesting connections between the urban and rural when it comes to repurposing,” Carson says. “Largely, city slickers just think what we do is revolutionary and amazing. But people in Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota have been doing this for generations. Farmers and ranchers are very accustomed to it.”
Carson has many municipal contracts. In Chicago, he collected over three miles of old firehoses and sold them to other clients for myriad purposes. Some wove the hoses together to make baskets, some made boat dock fenders. Governments also purchase things from him. Washington State bought scrap conveyor belting to use as snowplow deflectors.
Carson came to repurposing after owning a traditional garbage company. After selling that to a waste management company, he was looking for a new big project. When a painter he knew told him that old vinyl billboards make great backdrops for painting, his entrepreneurial radar turned on. He made some calls and found 20 billboards for sale.
“Repurposing is the highest in waste hierarchy,” Carson says. “It’s the highest inventive use of waste. If it has value as is, why melt it down?”
He founded Repurposed Materials, which is headquartered in Denver and has offices in Chicago and Atlanta. He says his many government contracts are a result of pressure on cities to reduce their waste.
“Governments have a lot of waste obviously because they’re big entities. They have a lot of stuff and the growing pressure in America is that it’s not cool to throw stuff in the garbage anymore,” Carson says. “They’re getting a lot of pressure from their constituents, and they need to tell good stories about how they’re reducing waste.”
Carson helps with those good stories. One of his favorite creative reuses of city waste is in the form of old street-sweepers. He collects those from cities, and farmers buy them to use as back-scratchers for their animals.
Carson says his business is thriving, and he’s optimistic that repurposing is gaining popularity.
“Repurposing will not solve all the problems,” Carson says. “But it’s another weapon in the arsenal that will help landfill diversion efforts and bring cities closer to becoming zero waste communities.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.