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    AUTHOR: Ellen Jean Hirst

    What do you do with 15,000 feet of old fire hose?

    Hammer it onto docks as boat bumpers. Weave it together for jungle gyms. Stretch it into horse fences. Cut it into pieces to sharpen straight razors.

    Welcome to repurposing — finding new uses for items at the end of their lives.

    Repurposing isn’t new. Artists have long fashioned sculptures and other works out of what most people would consider junk. But repurposing typically involves large volumes of materials like thick wooden beams from old factories, artificial football field turf or piles of street sweeper brushes.

    The growing popularity of repurposing among farmers, builders and manufacturers has given rise to middleman businesses that specialize in selling such materials they buy or get for free or were paid to haul away — businesses like Colorado-based Repurposed Materials, which, in April, opened a location in Manteno, Ill., north of Kankakee. There is a shift from thinking of it as waste to thinking about what value does that item have? How do we repurpose it, reuse it and get it back in the economy?- Brenda Pulley, Keep America Beautiful “These big manufacturing companies, they have huge disposal problems, and it’s not cool anymore to throw stuff away,” said Damon Carson, who owns Repurposed Materials. The thinking of manufacturers today, he said, is, “I could throw this away or do a deal with Repurposed Materials and tell our shareholders (and) customers that we’re closer to zero waste.” Brenda Pulley, senior vice president of recycling for the national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful, said there is “a shift from thinking of it as waste to thinking about what value does that item have? How do we repurpose it, reuse it and get it back in the economy?”

    This kind of repurposing is new enough that it has not been studied. Illinois is among seven states that have chapters with the national Reuse Alliance, which is seeking funding to establish regional and national data on reuse. “A resuse could be you donate a computer and someone gets to use it,” Pulley said.

    A 2011 Minnesota study suggests that sparing junk from landfills can contribute a lot to its economy. The report estimated that its reuse sector, which includes items such as used cars, generates $4 billion in gross sales annually, 1.6 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

    The story of how Repurposed Materials obtained the fire hose illustrates how repurposing benefits all parties involved.

    Carson bought 15,000 feet of fire hose from the city of Chicago for less than $1,000 in an online auction, he said. So far, he has sold about 7,000 feet at 50 cents a foot, reaping a tidy profit.

    On the selling side, Chicago saved an estimated $350,000 on hauling and dumping fees, said Cathy Kwiatkowski, a spokeswoman for the Department of Procurement Services.

    On top of that, the city made money selling the hose as well as thousands of other unwanted items. Chicago has collected more than $11 million in more than 2,000 online auctions since 2011, Kwiatkowski said.

    Carson said his customers come from a range of industries (cranberry farmers, copper miners, golf course owners) but have characteristics in common: innovativeness, resourcefulness and frugality. A case in point is Brandon Weiss, owner of Geneva-based Evolutionary Home Builders who bought a few rolls of Harvard University soccer field turf to cover mud surrounding a house he was staging to sell.

    “We used the turf as a way to soften up the construction phase,” Weiss said. “Now, we’re using it as a walkway between raised garden beds.”

    Then there’s Mike Brandonisio, owner of Naperville-based The Restored Razor. He bought 50 feet of used fire hose, though he doesn’t take credit for being innovative. He said repurposing fire hose to make into strops to sharpen straight razors dates to the 1800s.

    The fire hose side, he explained, chisels off microscopic amounts of metal, and a leather flip side smooths it out.

    “It’s one of the things people in the shaving community look for,” Brandonisio said, “in terms of marks of quality.”

    One upside of repurposing is that it can be inexpensive. On a recent weekday, a couple visited the Manteno location, where branch manager Jerry Kessler showed them AstroTurf obtained from St. Rita High School in Chicago.

    Brian Zirkle and Michelle Anderson plan to open a sports training facility called House of Sportz in Kankakee. They walked between rows of green turf, spotted with red, which had been in the school’s end zone.