In 2012, ENR ran an article about a naively ambitious Denver-based start-up that was diverting construction materials from the landfills by “repurposing” them. The company was then just a year old and was still learning the basics of repurposing.

Today, repurposedMATERIALS has expanded to six warehouse hubs across the country and is keeping 15 million lb—about 250 truckloads—out of the landfill by finding second purposes for used, discarded and cast-off materials from pretty much every industry imaginable.

In 2023, the firm repurposed the glass from a college hockey rink as walls for greenhouses; helped Kiewit re-home 1 million lb of precast pipe that the contractor used on a temporary stormwater diversion project; and enabled Apple to keep 14 large glass atrium skylights out of the landfill when they removed them from one of their retail stores.

It’s not just the environment that benefits from repurposing; in many cases, contractors can also find considerable cost savings if they investigate utilizing repurposed materials to meet their own needs.

When utilizing repurposed material over a primary-purpose product, there is typically a savings of 50-75%.

Certainly, recycling is worthwhile, but only when items are no longer useful in their current form. Recycling involves the reprocessing of materials and, therefore, ranks just above burning on the waste hierarchy. However, repurposing is preferable to recycling because it requires little to no energy, saves money on disposal and presents a cost-saving opportunity to the second user.

And when it comes time to dispose of unnecessary materials, there may be a way to avoid paying to dispose of it, thus putting repurposing at the intersection of affordability and sustainability.

A free online advertisement on a platform like Craigslist will help get rid of a surprising amount of used material, but if your organization is worried about liability and theft concerns from people coming onto your projects from an online ad, you can always reach out to a local distributor of used materials such as a Habitat for Humanity Restore.

Consider the ACE

My advice for unlocking an item’s repurpose potential is to consider its “ACE”—its attributes, characteristics and engineering. Ask yourself: What general ACE does the item possess? What other needs do I have for those same basic essentials?’

Rather than melting, shredding, chipping or grinding—the essence of the recycling process—engineers and contractors are finding new uses for materials in their current form:

  • A worn-out conveyor belt becomes a gun range ballistics curtain.
  • A retired street sweeper brush becomes a scratching post for cattle.
  • Aluminum stadium bleacher planks are repurposed as decking for utility trailers.
  • Railroad rails, painted bright yellow, can be used as safety curbs to keep forklifts and other wheeled machines from damaging warehouse walls.

Once you determine what attributes, characteristics or engineering remain in a product, you may be able to find a second life for it within your own organization or in another organization that you already know, ultimately saving it from the landfill.