How one company gives new life to old, industrial junk

February 13, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Repurposed Materials, a matchmaker for unloved stuff, finds wildly creative new uses for cast-offs.

By Jennifer Reingold, senior editor

Street sweeper brushes find new life as cattle backscratchers

Street sweeper brushes find new life as cattle backscratchers

FORTUNE -- Weston Ault is a part-time rancher with a problem. His 40 cows and bulls in Cedar Fort, Utah, are so itchy that they've been pushing over fence posts scratching their backs. So when he heard about a novel solution from Repurposed Materials, a Denver company that specializes in figuring out ways to reuse old industrial equipment, he decided to take a chance, spending $150 for two old industrial street-sweeper brushes. He will mount them vertically in the cattle's pen as backscratchers. The Bronx Zoo has already bought several. "I just picked them up," he says, chuckling. "They're in my truck as we speak."

275-gallon containers made into a hunting blind

275-gallon containers made into a hunting blind

He heard about the street sweepers from another rancher, who had seen them in founder Damon Carson's quirky e-newsletter, sent to some 25,000 readers. The weekly advertises everything from used ski lift cables to -- this week -- "two 800 ton, fiberglass cooling towers being disconnected and removed in the next 30-60 days." Unlike most companies in the reclamation business, which recycle items by breaking them down into their component parts, Repurposed Materials is all about finding innovative new uses for existing products. "We are looking for the castoffs of industry that can get a very different second life," Carson says.

Carson has a background in waste -- he ran a successful garbage business in Vail and Breckenridge and sold it in 2002 -- but had moved on to other entrepreneurial endeavors when a conversation with a painter led him to his next act. "He said, 'If you ever get a chance to buy an advertising billboard, buy it, because [the vinyl covering] makes a great dropcloth for painting.'" Carson bought a bunch and resold them. "I started to wonder if there's enough byproducts and waste in industry to make a whole business out of this," he says.

And so was born Repurposed Materials, which is not a recycler at all but rather what a friend of Carson's christened "an industrial Cupid." The company's 1.5-acre space in Denver wasn't even fenced in until recently, because people didn't think anything was worth stealing.

But they were wrong. Cable from a ski resort in Vail? It's now owned by a dredging contractor in Minnesota. (Other cable is made into handrails for residential stairways.) Commercial fishing nets with holes in them? They're now used for batting cages. Burlap sacks from the coffee industry? Crawfish farmers in New Orleans use them for temperature control on the way to the market. Old billboards? The U.S. Army Rangers are saving taxpayers money by using the rigid parts to build a training maze.

Cast-off cable turned into a stairway handrail

Cast-off cable turned into a stairway handrail

While it's hard to scale a business like Repurposed Materials, environmental experts see a crying need for more such middlemen. (The company, with about $1 million in revenues, is expanding to Chicago.) "The three Rs are reduce, reuse, and recycle," says English Bird, executive director of the New Mexico Recycling Commission. "But we often forget the reduce, reuse part. It's goodwill on a big scale."

Not only is the process good for the buyer and the environment; it's often helpful to manufacturers, too, especially if they would otherwise have to pay to remove their junk. Over at Rayner Covering Systems, a South Elgin, Ill.-based manufacturer of plastic pool covers that lets customers send back ripped or unusable covers, a lot behind the building had become what operations manager Judy VanVactor called "the cover graveyard." Every so often, she'd pay a hauler to put a truckload of them into a landfill.

Football field turf used for fashion show flooring

Football field turf used for fashion show flooring

Then she connected with Repurposed Materials, which picked up two semi loads of covers -- probably at least 1,000 of them, she estimates. Today, those covers are being used to provide shade for goats grazing in the hot summer sun, plant nurseries, and, at the Albuquerque Zoo, catch poop under the vulture exhibit. "I just saved two things," VanVactor says, "paying for the labor to get it all thrown away and the cost of hauling it off. Plus we're not filling up a landfill." Anyone need 600 square feet of used synthetic turf? You know where to go.

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