One of Damon Carson's customers recently told him, "You're really just a professional dumpster diver, aren't you?"
Carson took it as a compliment. "I've been called a lot of things: Dr. Junk, dumpster jockey, trash wizard. It doesn't matter, as long as they know I've got what they need," he says.
The founder and owner of Repurposed Materials Inc., Denver, Carson buys by-products from industries across the country and sells them for a different use. At the company's half-acre storage yard in northern Denver, his hundreds of "junk treasures" include rolls of fire hose, vinyl from billboards, rubber roofing membrane, elevator cables, oak wine barrels, artificial turf, old climbing rope, swimming-pool covers and, from Wyoming, snow fences.
"We don't recycle. There's no chipping and grinding going on here," Carson says. "We repurpose. We buy it and sell it as is. No warranties or guarantees. Our customers come up with all kinds of creative reuses for these products."
Carson says landscapers use the rubber roofing membrane for pond liners, while other customers repurpose burlap coffee sacks for sandbags, ground cover or as protection for curing concrete. The fire hose has been employed as a boat-dock bumper, an irrigation hose and as part of a zoo's monkey exhibit. Climbing rope from city recreation centers works well for bundling, taglines or tying down loads. The billboard vinyl is used as a tarp to cover material on jobsites.
However, Carson says he is not buying and selling random construction or demolition waste. "We look for highly engineered, quality products that come in uniform lengths and sizes," he says. "Versatility of reuse is key for us. I probably wouldn't buy 50 toilets from an old apartment building because it's less easy to repurpose them than roofing tiles."
One of Carson's newest clients is Brad Licht, owner of Licht Renovation LLC, Denver, a residential contractor who bought about 1,000 linear ft of snow fence to panel a custom-made basketball court in Greenwood Village, Colo.
"We were going to use cedar on the job, but it's expensive, and the rustic quality of the snow fence actually fits better with the home's European country design," Licht says. "Plus, it adds to the sustainable nature of the project."
Drew Nichols, owner of Nichols Design and Construction, a custom homebuilder in Fort Collins, Colo., bought some polyiso roofing insulation from Carson's company for about half the cost of new insulation. He used it to insulate underneath concrete slabs in a new home. "I saved about $300 to $400. Also, it's important to us to keep waste out of the landfill," Nichols says.
No Grand Vision
Carson, 40, a Kansas native, came to Colorado after college for the skiing and started his own trash-hauling firm, which served the mountain resort towns until it was bought by a larger firm. He says he founded Repurposed Materials in September 2010 with "zero grand vision." After I sold my first company, I had a family to feed, so I did what I knew. I started bird-dogging by-products, asking people what they need and could use," he says.
An admitted trade-magazine junkie, Carson says he studies the stories and ads for new products. "I try to find parallels out there in products that have outlived their original life spans," he says.
"I soon became a mini-expert in by-products no one else seemed to want," he says. He started by buying billboard vinyl, then created a website, www.repurposedmaterialsinc.com. His weekly e-newsletter now updates about 25,000 U.S. customers on his latest finds. Carson hires a new person every other month—he has hired eight employees in the firm's first 18 months—and he wants to expand his materials yard. He says the firm should achieve seven-figure revenue by the end of 2012.
"This is very much a lean, interactive business," he says. "It's like an industrial thrift store. We buy in small quantities at first, our customers do the R&D [repurpose and development] for us, and we get to be about as green as you can get."