Repurposing as resurrection: Area businesses, individuals benefit from upcycling trend

MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Damon Carson sees something magical in helping an old item find a new life.

Carson is the founder of Repurposed Materials, a Denver-based company with a Maquoketa location branded as an “industrial thrift store” that purchases surplus or worn-out materials from one industry and sells them to another.

Common examples of such materials include wooden flooring, insulation, steel grating and PVC pipes. Some of those items will be reused in their original form, while others are sold for repurposing.

“We call it the hocus pocus moment,” Carson said. “That’s when one material finds a totally different use than what it was before. It’s almost mind boggling all the different ways people can turn one thing into something new.”

Old fire hoses become boat ramp bumpers, for example, and worn down street cleaner brushes can be sold to zoos to act as backscratchers for rhinos, hippopotamuses or other large animals.

In the oft-cited “reduce, reuse, recycle” triangle, Carson said repurposing falls somewhere between reuse and recycling. It’s a process that can help individuals and businesses save money while also diverting unnecessary waste.

“We deal in a very broad and diverse range of products,” Carson said. “We reach out to industries for their castoffs, discards and byproducts and find new ways to put that to use instead of throwing it out.”

While Repurposed Materials works mostly at the commercial level, there also are opportunities for individuals or smaller area businesses to purchase and benefit from repurposed or reused materials.

Vance DeLire runs Antiques & Salvage in Cuba City, Wis., which specializes in architectural salvage, as well as antique furniture and other items. He is hired during deconstruction projects to salvage usable materials such as old flooring, doors or working light fixtures.

He then resells those materials to a mix of commercial and personal customers, ranging anywhere from business owners looking for construction materials to local 4-H members in need of project supplies.

“I think the old materials inspire people,” he said. “A lot of people come in with an idea in their head, but I always hear that they didn’t really know what direction they wanted to go until they saw what they could work with.”

DeLire added that repurposed materials often come with the added benefit of bringing a nostalgic or authentic vibe to projects that are harder to recreate with new or synthetic materials.

For example, he recently salvaged gym flooring from an old Monticello school and resold the wood to a school alumnus looking to use the materials for a variety of personal and commercial woodworking projects.

“He’s going to be making some bar tops out of it, but he’s also going to be making all kinds of different stuff to then sell to school alumni who want to remember their time there,” DeLire said. “It’s good, solid maple flooring, so there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

Repurposed materials often are less expensive than new ones, Carson added, meaning they come with a financial benefit for businesses and individuals. The process of reusing or repurposing also comes with the benefit of lengthening the item’s life cycle.

A product’s typical life cycle could be described as a cradle-to-grave system, which covers the process from material extraction to manufacturing to use and, finally, disposal. Repurposing renews that cycle, creating more of a “cradle-to-cradle” model that replaces disposal with re-creation.

“We often get asked if repurposing makes sense environmentally or economically, and we like to say it works both ways,” Carson said. “We provide an environmental option for them that costs 50% or 75% less than a new material.”

For Timothy Ingram, the recreation of repurposing is an artistic opportunity.

Ingram owns Momentum Bikes in Platteville, Wis., and has seen plenty of old or broken bikes over the years. It seemed a waste to throw them away, he said, so he instead began to integrate the pieces into lamps, clocks and other items made out of old bike pieces.

Over several years, he has turned one section of the bike shop into a curated space for art creation and display. He has begun to attend local festivals and art shows to show off and sell his handmade pieces and connect with others interested in repurposing materials.

“I really enjoy resurrecting things,” he said. “I saw all this really cool stuff that other people might throw away, and I thought I could reuse it in a way that might make people smile.”