Popular Science – The Matchmaker

Meet the matchmaker pairing commercial waste with companies ready to reuse it

“Damon Carson can find a new home for everything from old conveyors to street-sweeping bristles.”

Damon Carson has one of the more interesting inboxes in America. On any given day, from his office in Denver, Colorado, he will field myriad inquiries from people looking to unload stuff. We’re not talking about the odd consumer trying to dispense with an old refrigerator, or a bagful of out-of-fashion clothing. Picture instead large companies—sometimes multinational corporations—looking to unload massive, metric-ton amounts of stuff, maybe for a price, maybe for free. Stuff that has no clear value, no immediately apparent afterlife, no clear end-user. Stuff that’s otherwise on a fast-track to the landfill.

During a recent conversation, Carson relayed a sampling of what had come across the transom in just a few days last autumn. There was the offer to pick up surplus rolls of the fabric used to cover domed sports stadiums. There was some 20,000 kilograms of barium sulfate (formulated for lead-acid batteries) that had an iron content too high for the manufacturer’s specs. There were 28 pallet-loads of plastic bins from a discount retailer. And a major outdoor recreation company wanted to know if he was interested in nearly 800 pounds’ worth of blue rope—each 33.5 inches long—which were no longer needed to make the handles on coolers. The cost of shipping? Covered by the manufacturer. “They’re kind of a tree-hugging company,” he explained. “They don’t want to just throw it away. Nor should they. Because it has value.”

The question of what value, and to whom, is the inchoate algebra that animates Carson’s days. Call him, as he calls himself, a “waste speculator” or “materials gambler.” A yenta of the complex, never-ending waste stream of contemporary capitalism, trying not to pair people with people, but things with people. “I’m just betting that somewhere in America, I can find a home for 8,000 33.5-inch pieces of rope.”

For nearly a decade, Carson’s company, RepurposedMaterials, has been casting these wagers. He’s not looking to recycle the stuff he gets—breaking it down to make something new—but rather finding new homes for castoff goods in their original forms. He has his staples. He has miles of used firehose, for example, that no longer reliably handles water at high pressure but does work as a protective “bumper” for boat docks, among other uses. Rubber conveyor belts, past their prime on the factory floor, become “ballistic curtains” in gun ranges. The sturdy bristles from street-sweepers find their way into fields, where they serve as back-scratchers for livestock. (Customers for this include Ted Turner, who owns the most bison in the US.)

“You can’t wrap your mind around how wasteful America is until you run a waste company”
Damon Carson

But then, every week or so, something new will come in that he knows nothing about. “I just got a bunch of ceramic paper,” he says. “I’ve never even heard of ceramic paper.” For the record, it’s a thin, fire-resistant insulator made from high-purity alumina silicate, used as heat-shielding in aircraft insulation, lining kilns, and other industrial processes.

The person who will know what to do with a bunch of ceramic paper is probably the one who knew what it was for in the first place. And so Carson either needs to find that person, or to try to suss out possible uses for the material—often through his network of clients. If capitalism, in the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase, is the act of “creative destruction,” one that isn’t particularly good at dealing with the wreckage it leaves in its wake, Carson is trafficking in creative repurposing. He wades into the vast, almost unknowable realm of the global production of things

This is particularly fertile territory in the US. “We produce the most waste per person of any country in the world,” notes Jenna Jambeck, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia. In 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated the size of the country’s municipal solid waste stream at 292.4 million tons, roughly 4.9 pounds per person per day. The total is more than twice what it was in 1960. But Jambeck points out that’s far exceeded by industrial waste, castoffs from everything from manufacturing to agriculture. This murkier stream is far harder to track, for various reasons, but a broad spectrum of American industrial facilities create and cast off approximately 7.6 billion tons of industrial solid waste annually.

For the moment, Carson’s unique business, which finds new lives for millions of pounds of refuse every year, is the only thing standing between that batch of ceramic paper and the landfill.

Dumpster divining

After tripling the company’s business in four years, he sold it to the nationwide corporation Waste Management. With the proceeds, he bought some coin-operated laundromats and invested in some trailer-park developments. “I kind of like the ugly in business, you know, the non-sexy,” he says. None of these particularly flourished. All the while, something in the recesses of his mind haunted him. Working in the trash business, Carson had become familiar with an almost everyday phenomenon: “You’d open up one of these big construction dumpsters at the landfill and stuff would start falling out,” he says. He would find perfectly straight two-by-fours, or a window still clad in plastic from the factory. “You can’t wrap your mind around how wasteful America is,” he says, “until you run a waste company.”

Carson describes himself as frugal by nature. “In my office today, the jeans, shirt and boots I’m wearing all came from Goodwill,” he says. “I’m looking outside at my Ford truck—I bought it two years ago with 180,000 miles on it. I could have bought all that new, but I just like buying used.”

With his penchant for thrift, and his exposure to excessive waste, he began thinking about creating a sort of secondhand Home Depot that would sell surplus material and keep it out of the waste stream. But it never came to fruition. Then, in 2010, he was talking to an airbrush artist he hired for one of his businesses, who happened to do a lot of work on outdoor advertising. “He said, ‘if you ever get a chance to buy an old billboard when they’re done with it, they make great dropcloths for painting,” Carson recalls. Intrigued, he called a Denver outdoor ad company. A few minutes and $140 later, he was the owner of 20 used billboard vinyls. “I had zero business plan,” he says. He started listing them on Craigslist; the first buyers were farmers looking for tarps to cover their hay bales. A business was born.

There is, of course, a solid environmental case for repurposing. “When people call, I say we don’t chip, shred, grind, melt,” Carson notes. Recycling, however noble, still takes energy; one estimate found it takes slightly less than half the BTUs of energy to manufacture something from recycled materials than make it anew. “Why grind something up, why melt something down, if it still has value?” he asks. An old oil field pipe might be melted down and turned into a car bumper, but it still takes a fair amount of power to finish the transformation. Why not leave it as a steel pipe? Why not tilt it vertically and turn it into a fence post for a livestock pasture? Now you’re down to just the cost of transport.

But Carson’s “not enough of a tree-hugger” to take this approach without a solid business case. After he sold out of his initial run of used billboard vinyls, the entrepreneur in him perked up. “I thought, ‘I wonder if I could do a hundred thousand in revenue with these things,’” he says. He made a website devoted to selling this singular product. That was humming along for a few months when, he says, “a guy started talking to me about rubber conveyor belts.” The belts were worn out from transporting ore and other materials for the mining industry, but Carson suspected they still had a use. He made a few calls, and for a few hundred bucks, gathered a healthy supply. These began finding their own purposes: windbreaks for cattle ranchers in the cold northern plains, protective coverings for roadway companies to prevent their heavy equipment from damaging surfaces.

Having an MBA doesn’t really teach you how to sell things of uncertain value. But Carson grew his company by simply keeping his eyes open, working the phones, and turning his website into a colorful sort of national swap meet, where thrift-minded purchasing managers, farmers, and everyday consumers puzzle over what to do with, say, 40-foot-long steel box trusses.

It’s often Carson’s buyers who come up with their own creative reuses. When a police department in Florida called to order roughly 400 square feet of old conveyor belts, Carson says he found out that ballistic curtains “in the shooting world” are one-eighth-inch thick and go for about $3 a square foot. His conveyor belts were a half-inch thick and $1 a square foot. “They told me, ‘your used stuff works better than the purpose-built, and it’s one-third the price,’” he adds.

Of course, not everyone is going to go to the trouble of wondering if there might be a cheaper, better alternative for something like a ballistic curtain. They won’t go looking for what, in the world of economics, is called a “cross-category substitute”—a putatively different product that can serve the same purpose, a lower cost. But Carson will. He recalls the time he needed a new string for a window blind and found a cord in the window section at the home improvement store. “It was one-eighth inch thick, 30 inches long, $10,” he says. “I thought, ‘well let me go to the rope section and see what they’ve got over there.’ One-eighth inch thick, 30 inches long, $4.” The difference, he argues, was marketing.

Much of the notion of value, as with the notion of trash itself, depends on categorization. “Madison Avenue is very good at packaging things and putting a different price on it,” he says. “And we just say, ‘Ooh, that’s for a window: It must be specially designed and highly engineered.’ It’s just a string. They just put it in the windows section and charge twice as much.”

One man’s trash

On a late September afternoon, Carson strolls around his Colorado warehouse, one of four the company now maintains nationally. He passes massive spools of steel cable, which formerly serviced ski lifts (some had been purchased by the Bureau of Land Management to help demarcate campgrounds). There were tightly packed bundles of burlap coffee sacks from a well-known national chain. Not far away was a cluster of 12-inch-high, 26-foot-long highway guardrails (“this gets used as retaining walls or fencing”). One area was dominated by a truckload of wine barrels (“all sorts of interesting uses”). In another, 2.5-inch-thick nautical rope, meant to tie ships to docks. “All ready,” Carson quips, “for a big tug of war game.” There were stacks of wood planks salvaged from bowling alleys still bearing the ghostly triangular traces of pin marks (“because bowling’s not as popular as it was”). All in, Carson estimates that his company keeps 3 million pounds of refuse out of landfills every year.

History rarely happens without the presence of things—“material history,” scholars call it. Humans need things to live, to work, to go to war. We need things to ship things, to sell things, to get rid of things. And things are needed to make other things: It takes almost twice as much fiber to produce a garment than what winds up in the piece of clothing itself; some reported estimates say it takes 39,000 gallons of water to produce an automobile.

Carson thrives in a semi-secret world that exists all around us, but that’s somehow invisible. There are websites like Salvex that sell goods intended for the same purposes as in the past. Some companies, meanwhile, have taken it upon themselves to see that their outflows are reused; auto equipment supplier Denso, for example, passes on some 15 tons of potassium aluminum fluoride, a hazardous waste, to a company that uses it to produce alloy ingots.

Yet there’s nothing quite like Repurposed, and Carson has a unique window on the lesser-known gyrations of capitalism. He constantly gets sales pitches from people, for instance, who had come out the wrong end of one of the market economy’s occasional turns. There was someone who had 250,000 pounds worth of polyethylene terephthalate face shields, made in the early days of COVID. Similarly, someone else wanted to unload thousands of feet of galvanized spiral ductwork, acquired to build temporary hospitals during the pandemic, but never used.

“Madison Avenue is very good at packaging things and putting a different price on it. And we just say, ‘Ooh, that’s for a window: It must be specially designed and highly engineered.’ It’s just a string.”
Damon Carson

But how does Carson decide what to buy, and how much to pay, for goods that may have no clear use or established second-hand market? Jambeck, of the University of Georgia—who’s currently conducting a lengthy study of plastic pollution in the Mississippi River—told me she was drawn to the field of municipal solid waste for just this reason. As an environmental engineer, she could be designing drinking water plants, but the metaphysical slipperiness of garbage captivated her. “I was just fascinated because we all don’t define waste the same,” she says. “We know what water is (water’s water). But waste, it’s like the adage, ‘one person’s trash is another’s treasure.’”

Still, there is a liminal zone, a moment, where something is neither trash nor treasure. Repurposing is, at heart, about redefinition. And so mineral oil, destined for use in the artificial insemination industry and exposed to too much heat during transport, can find a second life as a dust suppressant for dirt roads. When a brewer needed to turn around 30,000 pounds of sugar that had passed its sell-by date, Carson put out feelers and netted the sale to a beekeeper. “He said, ‘do you think the bees care it’s expired?’”

Faced with these vagaries in value, Carson relies on a set of algorithmic filters he crunches in his head to inform his buying decisions: “generic, versatile, adaptable.” He doesn’t deal in used pickup trucks because they have a very specific purpose as trucks (as well as an already well-established market). But steel cable is steel cable, even if it’s no longer deemed capable of supporting skiers on a mountain.

When presented with some novel (at least to him) substance or material, however, he relies on a different trinity: attributes, characteristics, engineering. “Is it hollow? Is it magnetic? Is it insulated? Is it UV protective?” he says. He tries to find a story behind the stuff. Ceramic paper isn’t going to excite people, says Carson, but if you tell people it’s used to insulate dishwashers (among many other things), it might spur creative thinking. “Some guy in Nebraska may not be needing to insulate a dishwasher, but he’s got some invention or some farming application or whatever he does in his life,” Carson says.

It is no small wonder that so many of Carson’s clients have some link to farming or ranching—“cowboy engineers,” he calls them. “The ethos of repurposing has never gone away from farming,” he says. These people are used to solving problems on their own. “A cowboy in North Dakota goes, ‘you know what, my tractor’s stuck in the mud and that’s a really thick rope, I bet it’ll pull my tractor.’ I don’t need to get some structural engineer to tell me the rope is strong enough to pull my tractor out.”

Maybe the cowboy ethos is catching: Carson is planning to open two new warehouses next year. “Corporate America,” he says, “is becoming increasingly focused on landfill diversion and sustainability, so we’re upping our capabilities.” You never know when the next 44,000-pound spool of 4-inch-thick marine rope might come along, or where it might go.

AUTHOR: Tom Vanderbilt