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Finding New Homes For Old Chemicals

Repurposed Materials, a surplus goods buyer, moves into an unfamiliar market

by Melody M. Bomgardner
January 11, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 2

This image shows how a used parachute can be hung as decoration for a wedding reception.
Credit: Repurposed Materials
Repurposed Materials suggests a decorative use for used parachutes.

If you have a stomachache, you can take magnesium oxide to feel better. But if you have a headache because your barge full of MgO got wet at a terminal in Arkansas, better to call Damon Carson, owner of Repurposed Materials, and see if he’ll take it off your hands.

Carson collects bulk materials that are obsolete, off-spec, out of date, surplus, or once-used. He also collects information about how those products can be used in a different industry.

Each potential purchase puts in motion a bit of detective work. For example, Repurposed Materials recently bought 60 giant sacks of a polymer absorbent that someone abandoned at a freight terminal. Carson resold it to a man who works in hockey facilities. The customer reported that he used the polymer to make a slush that seals the ice surface to the rink’s sideboards.

Carson’s business experience began with regular trash; years ago he and a partner started a company to haul garbage from Colorado ski resorts. They sold the firm to Waste Management. This time, he says, his business aims to keep stuff out of the landfill.

Credit: Repurposed Materials
Formerly a billboard, this large vinyl sheet protects hay from the weather.
This image shows how a used billboard can be used as weatherproof tarp for hay.
Credit: Repurposed Materials
Formerly a billboard, this large vinyl sheet protects hay from the weather.

“My very first project was reusing old advertising billboards,” Carson explains. “They have print and designs on one side, but are made of high-quality, waterproof vinyl. When the ad campaign is over, the vinyl can be used as tarps for hay bales.” Now five years old, Repurposed Materials has 12 employees and storage locations in Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and Chicago.

Other durable goods that have a second life thanks to Carson include old fire hoses—used for padding around boat docks—and worn-out rubber conveyor belts, which can line horse corrals or protect the floor under a tractor.

Repurposed Materials began adding products of a more chemical nature to its inventory about six months ago. It’s a potential new market for Carson but one that will take him into the complicated world of hazardous materials regulation.

Carson says he’s proceeding cautiously. “The chemical branch is very new,” he says. “Our hypothesis is, we’re already in warehouses at companies, and we see those obsolete liquids and powders.”

An early project was finding a home for 13 drums of concentrated wild berry fragrance. The owner, a shampoo maker, had discontinued the berry-scented product—to the benefit of a potpourri shop owner.

It can be easy for a company to find itself storing a large quantity of chemicals it can’t use, Carson has learned. He often handles materials that started out at the top of the quality pyramid, such as at a Food & Drug Administration-regulated business with tight quality tolerances.

For instance, drug firms frequently reject mineral oil as not meeting purity requirements. Cattle ranchers will gladly use it to blend insect repellents sprayed on cows, Carson says. “It’s a higher quality than the oil they’d buy at retail stores,” he points out.

Medical device makers sterilize replacement knee joints in 99% isopropyl alcohol, Carson relates in another example. But it’s a “one dip” process that results in a “contaminated” liquid that is still close to 97% pure. That’s pretty enticing for a printing company that normally uses 90% alcohol as a solvent.

Credit: Repurposed Materials
This horse approves of a repurposed street sweeper brush.
This image shows how a used brush from a street sweeper can be used in a horse corral for a scratching post.
Credit: Repurposed Materials
This horse approves of a repurposed street sweeper brush.

Carson estimates that he’s diverted as much as 45,000 kg of chemicals from landfills or incinerators. Businesses seek to minimize waste both for sustainability reasons and to avoid disposal costs; average tipping fees in the U.S. hover around $45 per metric ton.

Playing matchmaker for excess materials requires legwork. Carson has to carefully characterize the substance and figure out what it might be worth—sometimes only pennies on the dollar—and who might buy it. He pays the seller and tries to find a buyer who will pay more for it than he did. In the meantime he may have to store the product for several weeks.

When he last spoke with C&EN, Carson was exploring uses for surplus vitamin B and C supplements. One reader of his newsletter suggested that vitamin C can neutralize chlorine at water treatment plants.

Storing and transporting chemicals legally, however, is a tricky business. For the near term, Carson is focusing on materials that do not fall into hazardous waste classifications. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, despite a mouthful of a name, is nonhazardous. But surplus spray paint is hazardous.

“There is no doubt a learning curve, and we are taking baby steps,” Carson says. For example, he did not take a pharmaceutical firm’s surplus antihistamine powder after he learned it could be used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine.

He’s big on networking; in August he was the lunch speaker at the national conference of the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals. “We have a lot of friends of the company, including state Department of Environmental Quality officers and hazardous waste professionals,” Carson says.

One new friend is Brad Fimrite, president of Mountain States Environmental Service, which handles waste for companies in Montana and Wyoming. “We’re disposing of a lot of goods—including unopened products—that shouldn’t be landfilled,” Fimrite says. “People are afraid to take on products that are chemicals because of fear of liability.”

Legally, he explains, the generator of the waste is responsible for any downstream mishandling, and that makes companies wary of selling it. And potential buyers might not be able to tell precisely what they are getting and fear ending up with a big disposal bill if they can’t use it.

This image shows a bulk quantity and close up view of blue silica gel granules.
Credit: Repurposed Materials
Blue silica gel, originally intended for a cat litter blend, is available for other uses.

Fimrite has seen valuable oils for gears and other uses go to waste. Manufacturers often label products with overly strict expiration dates—“even stuff that doesn’t go bad unless you store it wrong,” he says.

Now that he’s part of Carson’s repurposing community, Fimrite wants to see materials repurposing start encompassing difficult-to-handle or hazardous items such as paints, epoxies, cleaning supplies, and aerosols.

But dealing in such products requires hazardous waste permits and training staff in the many aspects of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Resource Conservation & Recovery Act. “I applaud what Damon is doing, but I also warn him,” says John Handzo, project manager for the Business Environmental Program at the University of Nevada, Reno. “There are opportunities, but they are constrained by regulations.”

One big constraint, Handzo says, is that hazardous waste can be stored only at permitted waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities.

Many everyday substances found at businesses are considered hazardous waste when they are no longer in use, he points out. That would include “everything under your kitchen sink and in your laundry room: bleach, aerosol cans, and many types of cleaning products.” Other common hazardous wastes include metal powders from grinding operations, flammable paints, solvents, fluids containing more than 10% ethanol, and even multivitamins with minerals.

“There are a lot of pitfalls out there,” Handzo stresses, in being creative with waste.

Carson says he sees an opportunity to grow his company by learning how to repurpose challenging materials, including flammable or corrosive products. In the meantime, he’s looking for someone interested in buying 12 pallets of blue, water-absorbing silica gel, originally intended to go in cat litter.

He’s confident it’ll go quickly. “My customers are material MacGyvers,” Carson says. “These folks can use baling wire and old fire hose to solve a problem.”  


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