If you happen to be sitting on 8,000 lengths of blue rope or some eight-meter-long guardrails, this guy wants to talk to you
Damon Carson must have one of the more interesting inboxes in the world. On any given day, from his office in Denver in the western US state of Colorado, he will field myriad inquiries from people looking to unload stuff. We’re not talking about someone trying to dispense with an old refrigerator or some out-of-fashion clothing. Picture instead large companies looking to unload massive amounts of stuff that would otherwise go to the landfill.
For example, Carson, 51, got a request to pick up surplus rolls of the fabric used to cover domed sports stadiums. A battery manufacturer had 22 tonnes of barium sulfate used in lead-acid batteries; the iron content was too high for the manufacturer’s specs, but maybe he could find a new home for it? Twenty-eight pallet-loads of plastic bins from a discount retailer were just waiting for him to repurpose them. And a recreation company wanted to know if Carson was interested in 360 kilograms of blue ropes—each 85 centimeters long—which the manufacturer no longer needed to make the handles on coolers.
"Call Carson a waste speculator or a materials gambler"
“They don’t want to just throw it away,” he explains. “Nor should they. Because it has value.”
The question of what value, and to whom, is the algebra that animates Carson’s days. Call him, as he calls himself, a waste speculator or a materials gambler. A matchmaker of the complex, never-ending waste stream of contemporary capitalism, trying not to pair people with people, but things with people.
Carson takes large scale items from companies and helps repurpose and resell items that would normally end up in the landfill. Photo © Matt Nager 2022.
For nearly a decade, his company, Repurposed Materials, 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 cast-off goods in their original forms.
American industrial facilities create and discard approximately 7.6 billion tonnes of unwanted industrial materials annually. For the moment, Carson’s unique business, which finds new lives for millions of kilograms of refuse every year, is the only thing standing between those pallets of plastic bins and the landfill.
A business is born
In the late 1990s, Carson was on break from business school and leading the life of a ski bum in Vail, Colorado, when he discovered the lucrative world of waste. The construction sector was booming, and he wanted in. Cashing in on his entrepreneurial skills, he and a friend bought a portable toilet business that catered to construction sites. After tripling the company’s business in four years, he sold it and bought laundromats and invested in trailer parks.
“I kind of like the ugly in business, you know, the non-sexy,” he says.
Working, even peripherally, in construction, Carson had become familiar with an almost-everyday phenomenon: “You’d open up one of these big construction dumpsters and stuff would start falling out,” he says. He would find perfectly good planks of wood, or a window still clad in plastic from the factory.
“You can’t wrap your mind around how wasteful America is until you run a waste company,” he says.
Carson, a husband and father of three adult children, is far from wasteful. Frugal is how he describes himself. The clothes he’s wearing all came from a charity shop; his Ford truck was purchased with 290,000 kilometers on the odometer.
"You can’t wrap your mind around how wasteful America is until you run a waste company"
With his penchant for thrift and his exposure to excessive waste, he began thinking about creating a sort of secondhand hardware store that would sell surplus materials and keep them out of the waste stream. But his plans never came to fruition. Then, in 2010, an artist friend told him something that reignited his idea: The vinyl sheets used on outdoor billboards “make great drop cloths for painting.” Intrigued, Carson called a Denver out-door 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 the vinyls online. The first buyers were farmers looking for tarps to cover their hay bales. And a business was born.
There is a solid environmental case for repurposing, or upcycling. “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 energy to manufacture something from recycled steel materials than make it new.
These old fire hoses have been turned into bumpers for boat docks. Photo © Matt Nager 2022.
“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 on a farm? The only cost is transport.
Carson’s business selling used bill-board vinyls was humming along for a few months when someone he met uttered these three magic words: 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 some calls, and for a few hundred dollars, bought a healthy supply of the belts. For their second act, the belts were sold to ranchers to be used as windbreaks for cattle.
Carson’s buyers often come up with their own creative reuses. When a police department in Florida called to order roughly 37 square meters of old conveyor belts, Carson says, he learned that, in the shooting world, ballistic curtains are three millimeters thick and go for about $30 a square meter. His conveyor belts were 12 millimeters thick and one-third the price. “They told me, ‘Your used stuff works better than the purpose-built,’” he says.
Making the old new
On a late September afternoon, Carson strolls around his Colorado warehouse. He passes massive spools of steel cable that formerly serviced ski lifts. Nearby is a cluster of 30 centimeter-high, eight-meter-long highway guardrails (“this gets used as retaining walls or fencing”). In another area is six-centimeter-thick marine rope, meant to tie ships to docks.
Carson is banking someone will figure out a need for these old massive spools. Photo © Matt Nager 2022.
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. The sturdy bristles from broken-down street sweepers find their way onto farms,where they serve as back scratchers for livestock.
"The ethos of repurposing has never gone away from farming"
It’s no small wonder that so many of Carson’s clients have some link to agriculture—“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 says, ‘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 a structural engineer to tell me the rope is strong enough to pull my tractor out.’”
Maybe the cowboy ethos is catching: Carson recently opened two new warehouses, bringing the total to six. Corporations are, he says, “increasingly focused on landfill diversion and sustainability, so we’re upping our capabilities.” You never know when the next 20,000-kilogram spool of 10-centimeter-thick marine rope might come along, or where it might go.
Popular Science (April 22, 2021) © 2021 Tom Vanderbilt
Read more: Giving scrap a new lease on life
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