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Article - Atlanta Journal

"Rhinos and boardwalks and artificial turf, oh my!"
I t struck me that what former garbage company owner Damon Carson depends on is Americans with a robust imagination.

The kind of people who see a roll of worn-out conveyor belt or a dingy, 5-foot-long brush taken off a street sweeper and think: “Hallelujah! Where have you been all my life!” Carson recently opened an Atlanta branch for his Denver-based business, repurposedMaterials. He takes in industrial junk you’d think no one would want. Then he posts online what he has and finds others willing to buy the stuff for whatever purposes they can devise. (More later about what they come up with.)

This isn’t some charitable urge on Carson’s part. He’s intent on making money from corporate America’s drive to be “sustainable” and reduce waste.

The path for him to get there is kind of ugly, as I discovered while recently rooting around in his Atlanta warehouse off Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

Here’s what I found: thick, discolored wooden boards from a Jacksonville, Fla., boardwalk (rotting spots and rusted nails included). Sheets of worn artificial turf from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. (An academy spokesman said the school recently “re-branded,” so it tore up the turf to make room for new stuff with the right marketing name and insignia.) Stacks of red and blue street sweeper brushes. Odd lengths of leftover braided cable. Stacks of 275-gallon tubs that still contained traces of date juice from Israel, according to their labels.

You tell me: treasure or trash?

My personal favorite is the street sweeper brushes. Some apparently have ended up in zoos, including as backscratchers for rhinos. You may be thinking: “Aren’t some rhinos endangered? There’s got to be more street sweeper brushes than rhinos.” Fair enough, but the brushes also end up on farms for cattle and horses and just about anything else than needs scratching. Wish I hadn’t written that.

The sustainability of sustainability efforts is a legit issue. There is great success in the kind of recycling where you melt, chop, grind and otherwise mess with items to turn them into new things. That has created broad markets for huge volumes of discarded aluminum cans, white paper, cardboard and newspapers.

Compare that to “repurposing” efforts like Carson’s, where an old item is used for something other than its original function. Repurposing looks like it’s in its infancy as a business. Every item is specialized, and it takes time to find potential buyers with the right need and imagination to use them. “This is my second foray into the waste stream of America,” Carson told me by phone the other day.

He had a garbage-hauling business in Colorado’s Vail and Breckenridge ski resorts, where I assume trash is better and cleaner than the stuff I put out at the curb. He made money at it. But he said he likes to put old things to good use, likes buying his jeans at Goodwill, so he sold the business.

“I remember all the amazing stuff that we threw away,” he told me. “It broke your heart.” Eventually, someone in passing mentioned to him that old vinyl from billboards is a good buy because it can be used as tarps. Apparently things got out of control from there.

Carson is now the steroidal exaggeration of anyone (me included) who has ever come upon a kid’s broken slide beside the neighbor’s garbage cans and thought: “Huh, I bet this could be used for something.”

He has competitors. There are the used conveyor belt guys and the old railroad timber specialists and billboard vinyl brokers and someone who specializes in decommissioned fire hoses (good, I’m told, for boat dock fenders, wallets and floor mats). Carson’s operation is different in that he takes in virtually anything so long as the price is right, he thinks he’ll find good demand and the hauling costs won’t kill him.

When Hawaiian Airlines changed its color scheme, Carson picked up 30,000 purple linen napkins. “They said, ‘We are going to throw these in the landfill. Can you help us?’”

He’s got about 20,000 left after a man bought thousands to decorate the ceiling of his roller skating rink.

The wooden floors of truck trailers usually sell well ($12 a square foot) for things like restaurant floors or bar tops.

“Obviously they are distressed, but that’s part of the charm of it,” he said.

Same with wood from school bleachers (complete with old gum and etched names of girlfriends). And conveyor belts do well. He sold nearly a mile worth for $25,000 to a business that wanted to use them to catch juices dripping from rail cars at a transfer station in Galveston, Texas.

Then there is the junk that may turn out to be junk.

The 8,000 feet of rubber hand-railing from escalators. And thousands of feet of fabric made for an older version of Odor Eater insoles.

All this seems amazingly weird to me.

Milton Jackson felt the same way. He was a warehouse manager for a printer before Carson hired him to manage the new Atlanta branch. Jackson wasn’t used to viewing junk as anything more than junk. “I’m thinking: ‘What the heck?”

Now he tells me, “There’s so much use left in products… that we throw away.” Even before the old Jacksonville boardwalk timber was delivered, potential buyers kept calling him, like it was the latest fashion popping into Hermes.

Jackson confides that on his drive to work, he can’t help but see the warehouses and industries he passes in a wondrous new way. What stuff are they about to trash that still has value, viewed in the right light?

Maybe you can’t bank on second lives. But what a thrill it is to give one.

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