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Used street sweeper brushes, which find new life as scratching posts for livestock, are among the many “waste” items repurposedMATERIALS collects — free of charge — from public works departments across the country. Photo: repurposedMATERIALS

By Shelby O. Mitchell

What do a rhinoceros in the Bronx Zoo, a cow in Nebraska, and a horse in Texas have in common? It's no joke: They all scratch their backs on old street sweeper brushes , courtesy of a company called repurposedMATERIALS.

The Denver-based business specializes in salvaging old materials from municipal, industrial, and commercial sources, and finding creative new ways to reuse them. Since 2010, they've diverted more than 750,000 lbs. of waste from landfills across North America.

Founder Damon Carson takes pride in his reputation as a “professional Dumpster diver.” His first foray into solid waste was as co-owner of a garbage company that served Colorado ski resort towns. After selling the company to Waste Management, he was inspired to try his hand at recycling when he saw thousands of yards of vinyl billboard canvases being thrown in a landfill. Carson salvaged the vinyls, resold them as industrial-strength tarps, and his new business was off and running.

You call, they haul

In addition to saving the environment, repurposedMATERIALS helps save public works departments the time and cost of hauling away unwanted items. Depending on the type and quantity of materials, Carson determines the best way to take them — either by shipping or scheduling a pick up. Donors don't pay a thing, and materials are accepted “as is.”

Two of Carson's most popular products already come from municipal sources. A street sweeper brush that's become a scratching post for rhinos at New York City's Bronx Zoo originally cleaned the streets of Fort Collins, Colo. And when the City of St. Louis donated 50 used brushes, half were bought as back scratchers by a cattle rancher in Nebraska.

Many public works departments have donated worn-out “rodder” or jet hoses . Even after the high-pressure hoses are no longer fit for cleaning sewer lines, they can handle agricultural work. Farmers have used them for everything from irrigating crops to filling in abandoned wells with grout.

The company offers guidelines to help determine whether to “S.A.V.E.” used items: Standardization (are the materials uniform?); Availability (will the byproducts be available more than once?); Versatility (the more uses, the better); and Engineering (what are the properties and characteristics?).

If your product fits the bill, send a description (material, quantity, size, color, etc.) and photos if possible to damon@repurposedmaterials.com. Carson invites public works departments to contact him (303-478-6193) with ideas, and to help spread the word — he recently acquired decommissioned hoses from a fire department, and galvanized guy wire from a city's power and light division.

Get credit for going green

Repurposed items also help agencies meet requirements for purchasing environmentally preferred materials, often at a lower cost than other “green” products. “Our customers generally save 50% to 75% with our materials, versus buying something new,” says Carson.

This is especially true with specialty items, such as snowplow blades and deflectors. A fleet manager can buy several feet of used conveyor belt — a common coal-mining byproduct — and cut it to length to reuse it as a plow blade deflector, or bolt several together for a cutting edge. “There is a do-it-yourself element with some of these materials,” Carson says, “but the effort is minimal compared to the cost savings.”

Popular items and uses for municipalities include:

  • Billboard tarps — underlayment for sand or salt, covers for baseball diamonds, liners for ponds, ditches, and skating rinks
  • Conveyor belts — reusable ground protection mats for construction projects where track machinery runs on asphalt or grass
  • Steel chains — good for general-purpose use, even after they no longer meet lifting specs for the logging industry

Visit repurposedMATERIALS to see the latest products available, and the types of materials being accepted.