116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
An industrial thrift store
Maquoketa warehouse 1 of 6 distribution centers across U.S.
MAQUOKETA — When a highway’s wooden snow fence can no longer hold back Mother Nature’s wrath, it can be whipped into a wall-mounted headboard.
When aluminum bleacher seats have worn out their welcome, they can find a new game as a weatherproof dock.
Retired military parachutes can continue to make soft landings as sun shades, stage covers, tarps or decorative indoor/outdoor event canopies.
Damon Carson of Longmont, Colo., had no idea that when a single light bulb went off in his head in 2010, it would turn into an entire chandelier full of bright ideas that eventually would cast a glow from coast to coast, including Maquoketa, one of six distribution sites for his venture, RepurposedMATERIALS.
At a glance
Where: 1725 E. Maple St., Maquoketa
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
Company details: repurposedmaterialsinc.com/
At the time, he co-owned a garbage company serving Vail and Breckenridge, Colo.
“I became very familiar with all the waste in America because, as we would take the trash trucks to the landfill and you start pushing out the garbage, ‘Wow, there's a perfectly good this, there’s a perfectly good that. Why are we throwing this away?’ ” said Carson, 51.
The ‘aha’ moment
In September 2010, an airbrush painter who was working on a project for Carson told Carson that if he had the chance to buy some used billboard vinyl, it would make a great drop cloth for painting.
That was his “aha” moment for finding ways to divert industry castoffs from landfills to new lives in new hands.
“It's not an uncommon small business story, entrepreneurial story,” Carson said. “I had no grand vision. I liked the billboards being repurposed. I made a couple of phone calls around Denver, and I found 20 of these used advertising billboards for sale for $7 each. So 20 times seven — 140 bucks.
“I drove to South Denver, handed the guy cash, and I brought them home and threw them up on Craigslist to see if they would sell.”
About six weeks later, he started speaking with a customer about rubber, which led to the idea of repurposing conveyor belts from the mining industry. Once the rubber wore too far down to be of use, it likely would be “removed, rolled up and set in a corner,” Carson said. Sure enough, he found two rolls in Denver, bought them and found new buyers via Craigslist.
“My business background started to kick in,” he said, “and then it became a hypothesis. Are there enough byproducts and waste that can get a very different second life … that you could make a business? So at that point, it was a hypothesis. And, you know, 14 years later, I guess the answer is yes.”
It’s turned into a business that reaped $7 million in revenue companywide last year and kept 16 million pounds of castoff material out of landfills. He expects to divert 20 million pounds out of landfills this year.
“ ‘Repurposing’ is the newest frontier in landfill diversion and sustainability,” he told The Gazette. “The recycling world — chip it, shred it, grind it, melt it — has gotten all the attention for the last 50 years. Re-use is kind of the overlooked, but much more environmentally friendly solution, of the famous Reduce, Re-use, Recycle triangle.
“ ‘Repurposing’ is just reusing by giving a waste material a very different second life,“ he added, noting that a retired street sweeper brush can become a backscratcher for horses or cattle; a decommissioned fire hose can become a boat dock fender; or “an obsolete ski lift cable can become a hand railing in a luxury condo building.”
A wider reach
As business took off, Carson began expanding the product lines and distribution warehouses, beginning with Denver, then adding Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia.
“What we learned was that we didn’t need to pay for high-price big-city real estate to do this business,” he said.
When the lease was up in Chicago, he found a “good deal” on a 40,000-square-foot building in Maquoketa after Hollander Sleep Products vacated the Eastern Iowa site in April 2020.
Carson moved operations there the following year. Likewise, when the Atlanta warehouse lease was up, he bought a building in rural South Carolina.
“We transferred from urban city metro to rural America,” he said. “ … If you put pins on a map and look at it — Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Iowa, Ohio, South Carolina — we are within a day's truck drive of the majority of the population of the United States. Our six warehouses are primarily (there for) logistical reasons, and Maquoketa, Iowa, is very important. It’s the Upper Midwest branch.”
The inventory in each site reflects the region, with most of the business conducted online, but people are welcome to stroll into the various warehouses to see if they can find something to repurpose.
By his own calculations, Carson figures 12 percent to 18 percent of Americans “have what I call ‘the used mentality,’ meaning if they want to buy a bicycle to bike around the lake, (those) with the used mentality will go to Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, garage sales, flea markets, trying to find a bicycle. The rest of society … goes to Walmart, Target, Amazon to buy a brand-new bike to bike around the lake.”
Carson said he sources his inventory from companies of all sizes, small to Fortune 500, then resells it.
“We call ourselves an industrial thrift store,” he said. “We deal in the castoffs and discards of American industry, all the way from pharmaceuticals to steelmaking to forestry, timber — it's just the gamut.”
Customers run the gamut, as well.
“Our customer base is unbelievably diverse,” he said, noting that among his clients are Apple, Google, Buffalo Wild Wings, CNN founder Ted Turner and basketball legend Michael Jordan.
“And those are the famous ones,” he said. “But you know, a lot of it's just good do-it-yourselfers. We get shrimp farmers, cattle ranchers, architects, interior designers, (and) three or four times a year, the movie studios call because they need props for a movie shoot. It’s extremely diverse.”
He advises walk-in customers to have an antiquing mindset, where you’re just hunting for possibilities, since specific items might not be in stock or in the size you need for a given project.
“I would say if you absolutely need screws, and you don't want to waste time, go to Menards or Lowe's or Home Depot,” Carson said. “One of the words we use a lot (with) our customer base, you have to be a bit of an opportunist. You have to be a bit of that treasure hunter.”
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