Contributed by Randy Nishimura
A cozy group gathered at the Eugene Builders Exchange this past Thursday for the May chapter meeting of the Construction Specifications Institute-Willamette Valley Chapter. The topic for the meeting was repurposedMATERIALS, the successful enterprise at the vanguard of the rapidly growing materials repurposing industry.
CSI-WVC member Alorie Mayer, who has a background in energy and resource conservation management, organized the presentation of a webinar by repurposedMATERIALS president Damon Carson. Damon founded the company in 2011, and it has only grown by leaps and bounds since then. In Damon’s words, repurposing occupies the intersection of affordability and sustainability. The repurposedMATERIALS business model involves taking byproducts out of the waste stream and extending their maximum practical benefit while minimizing waste and the expenditure of new energy to ready them for new uses.
Damon introduced the topic of repurposing materials by having us think about what many of us did naturally as preschoolers: taking an empty Quaker Oats canister and transforming it into a drum or a container for Lego blocks, or reimagining a Maytag refrigerator shipping box as a medieval fort or a space-age rocket. This, in his words, was our “substitutionary thinking” at work. Repurposing isn’t a new concept; fundamentally, it is an innately human behavior.
Damon cited the waste hierarchy pyramid and how reuse occupies a perch near its peak. Repurposing is not the same as recycling, which typically involves energy-intensive processing of the materials (e.g. chipping, shredding, grinding, or melting) before reuse is possible. Repurposing is a means to extract the maximum practical benefit from products while minimizing the cost to the environment. As a waste-management strategy, repurposing minimizes emissions of greenhouse gases, reduces pollutants, saves energy, conserves resources, creates jobs, and stimulates the development of green technologies. Repurposing rather than reprocessing previously-used items also saves time and money, making quality products available to people and organizations who may be of limited means.
Of course, repurposing isn't a new concept. Artists (like my friend and former co-worker Rosie Nice) have long fashioned sculptures and other works out of what most people would consider junk. Habitat for Humanity ReStores and Eugene/Springfield’s own BRING Recycling sell salvaged materials but tend to emphasize reuse rather than repurposing. For example, salvaged doors or windows sold by Habitat for Humanity ReStores or BRING are typically used by the purchasers for the same ends they originally were originally intended for. What distinguishes repurposedMATERIALS is its procurement of large amounts of discarded products no longer suitable for their original purposes but are otherwise practical for altogether different uses.
Damon cited the following mnemonic device to explain his company's criteria for selecting the materials it chooses to procure and resell:
The materials should be Standardized, readily Available, Versatile, and well-Engineered (possessing desirable characteristics or attributes).
At its core, repurposedMATERIALS is a thrift store on an industrial scale, with branch offices/warehouses in Denver, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The company conducts online auctions as well as selling products directly to customers at preestablished prices through its website. Recently, repurposedMATERIALS expanded its mission/concept to include the repurposing of things like chemicals and other ingredients (as opposed to finished products), and even real estate. Anything that is obsolete to its primary industry is of interest to the company.
Damon described how his customers have imaginatively found new uses for old stuff. The products repurposedMATERIALS regularly procures and stocks include salvaged heavy timber beams, industrial storage tanks, and worn gymnasium floor boards. Some of the other used construction materials currently available include rubber playground tiles, salvaged wood from bleachers, 500-gallon propane tanks, concrete barrier blocks, and galvanized steel cable. The company also specializes in “all kinds of crazy” as well—offbeat industrial castoffs like aircraft wheel chocks, conveyor belts, used truck tires, and pool covers to name a few.
To Damon, much of the satisfaction he derives from his business comes from seeing how creative his customers can be. repurposedMATERIALS doesn’t always know how the materials it procures might be used. Street sweeper brushes enjoy a second life as backscratchers for horses and cattle. Old escalator handrails (which are made of thick rubber with reinforcing cables) become loading dock bumpers. Retired military cargo parachutes are used as wedding party tents. Used billboard vinyl (which is tremendously tough and intended to handle the worst Mother Nature can throw at it) is normally just thrown away, but Damon discovered the vinyl can be reused not only as drop cloths but also as hay covers, pond liners, and even slip n’ slides. He sold ten to a U.S. Army Ranger battalion for use as curtain walls in a training maze.
Given that 40% of the materials in the nation’s landfills can be attributed to construction waste, the key takeaway from the presentation is how significant our attention toward managing the waste hierarchy can be when viewed from a holistic, green perspective. Construction should be defined by good engineering and efficiency. Many salvaged or recovered materials are heavy duty and are ready for the tough jobs. It behooves architects to consider the possibilities inherent in the significant resources available from repurposedMATERIALS, and other similar vendors. We should use our imagination and creativity to help the construction industry minimize its environmental impact through repurposing.
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