St. Anthony: 'Reuse' industry finds new value in old things

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Leslie Tribbit sorted some donated china at Arc's Value Village thrift shop in 2011.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Last winter, Colorado businessman Damon Carson sold 3,000 feet of used, half-inch steel cable for $1,700 to a Minnesota sand-and-gravel company for its mine near Luverne.

It was half the price of new cable and plenty strong to safely winch a barge and dredge in a mining pond, said Joe Egan, president of Plymouth-based Northern Con-Agg, which mines aggregate for concrete used in roads and bridges.

Carson hauled the cable for nothing from a ski resort that had used it to steady snow-grooming equipment on steep inclines.

The transaction also is a win for ReUse Minnesota (www.reusemn.org), a new nonprofit whose business, government and individual members see economic value in cutting landfill dumping. They focus on the “reuse” part of the “reduce, reuse and recycle” mantra as a path to a more efficient, less polluting economy.

“Vail Resorts is a customer of ours and they approached us,” Carson said last week. “The steel cable couldn’t be easily recycled, and reuse is higher on the economic food chain than recycling, having to chip it or grind it and remelt it. Two or three years later, the dredging company saw the cable in our newsletter and bought it. We sent it to Minnesota.”

From excess to asset

Minnesota recently set up www.mnexchange.org, an electronic marketplace for Minnesota governments and businesses to turn one party’s used equipment or excess inventory into somebody else’s working asset. Other states, with business and nonprofit support, are trying to develop similar ways to reduce waste through economical reuse of material and equipment.

Carson, 41, ironically, is a former garbage company owner in two affluent Colorado ski resort towns who sold his hauling business to Waste Management.

“My first business was dumping waste in the county landfills and now I’m in business to keep it out,” quipped Carson, owner of www.repurposedmaterialsinc.com. “I did well on the sale of the business and I enjoy the challenge of this. I’ve always been thrifty. And I saw a lot of nice windows and leather chairs that went to landfills. There’s a market for this stuff. Not everybody buys new.”

Reuse is big business

The Minnesota reuse industry is a fragmented, eclectic group of mostly small business that employs 46,000 Minnesotans who generate about $4 billion in sales annually, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That’s bigger than the mining industry but smaller than the tourism trade that boasts $11 billion in annual sales and 238,000 employees.

ReUse Minnesota is designed to encourage reuse deals among individuals and businesses, including secondhand retailers, car repair shops and salvage operations. It also seeks to educate the public, promote businesses that reuse, rent and repair things, and decrease the use of landfills and incinerators, where it can costs up to $100 per ton to dump.

Greg Rue of Arc’s Value Village Thrift Stores, a founding member of ReUse Minnesota, said the association already has led to new sources of used clothing and consumer products.

“We’ve focused mostly in America on recycling since the 1980s,” said Madalyn Cioci of the Waste & Toxic Pollution Prevention unit of the Pollution Control Agency. “We’ve used product ‘life cycle analysis’ since the 1990s to look at the whole footprint of a product and found the vast amount of greenhouse gas and other pollution comes from making the products. So, if you want to conserve natural resources and prevent pollution, we need to get the most life out things already made as we possibly can. It could be an extended life through a thrift shop or refurbished furniture, or repaired electronics. We have great architectural salvage in the Twin Cities, such as the Habitat for Humanity Restore in New Brighton. We’d like to see more.”

Other reuse centers

Here are a few other examples of Minnesota’s growing reuse economy:

• There are six reuse shops (from clothing to lamp repair) alone at the upscale intersection of 50th and Xerxes Avenue in south Minneapolis. Several nearby restaurants boast used tables, chairs and plates.

• Bridging, the Bloomington-based nonprofit, keeps up to 10 million pounds of furniture and home furnishings out of landfills annually in its role as “the bridge” between donors and the working poor and once homeless.

• The folks who run Arc’s Value Village thrift stores in the Twin Cities, whose profits aid people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, estimate that each of their stores sell about 100 tons of mostly donated used clothing, housewares, books, toys and other merchandise and housewares every seven months. And Goodwill Stores, with 28 Twin Cities locations, has doubled in size over several years.

Meanwhile, the opportunistic Carson has designs on the Metrodome’s synthetic roof after it is demolished to make way for the new downtown sports stadium. It could happen, although it’s too early yet to make salvage deals.

“In line with industry standards today and the high level of interest in this project, we anticipate that to the greatest extent practicable the demolished material will be recycled, reused, or repurposed,” said John Wood, a senior vice president of Golden Valley-based Mortenson Construction, the contractor for the stadium.

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