How the 'eBay of trash' recycles tons of industrial waste

Used wood pallets, post-industrial electric blankets and glass scrap are among the industrial waste items companies ship to already-clogged landfills. But last year, one woman discovered that one company's trash could become another company's treasure.

Used wood pallets, post-industrial electric blankets and glass scrap are among the industrial waste items companies ship to already-clogged landfills. But last year, Brooke Farrell discovered that one company's trash could become another company's treasure when she launched RecycleMatch, an online marketplace that links industry waste with businesses that can use it.

I spoke last week with Farrell, who is also a 2010 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, about how her company is keeping millions of pounds of industrial debris out of landfills.

Before RecycleMatch, you worked in the trash business. What did you learn there?

My background is in advertising and marketing. In 2000, I started to work with the largest waste company in North America. From 2000 to 2008, I was heavily involved in understanding their customers and their needs. I got a huge exposure to different angles on trash. The real learning there was the scale, the scope of how much stuff is generated both by communities of residents and also by business and industry. There's just so much more than any of us can imagine. I calculated, based on the latest EPA estimates, that there was enough waste to fill trucks and wrap garbage trucks around the equator 600 times. That's just what's generated in the U.S. in one year.

What's the current state of the recycling industry?

The existing recycling industry is really focused around residential materials because that's what we have the most of and we're very consistent. We all use basically the same stuff because we're all buying it from the same supply chains. We all have plastic water bottles and aluminum cans and newspapers and magazines. Most of the industry is built around those highly commoditized, ubiquitous materials that are very common.

If we look at how much is recycled in today's [recycling] industry, it's about 30 percent. If you look at what we're going to need to do from a carbon and resource management standpoint, [that] is completely unacceptable. There have been plenty of studies that say we should be able to divert 70 or 80 percent of what's going to a landfill. But we're only diverting about 30 percent.

Instead of focusing just on the things that are very ubiquitous, we feel like RecycleMatch is a good way to dig into those other materials that are not as common, but they're still recyclable, reusable. They can be up-cycled, down-cycled [and] turned into energy. There are all kinds of things that can be done with stuff instead of sending it to a landfill.

How does RecycleMatch keep those materials out of landfills?

RecycleMatch is an online marketplace that connects companies that have waste with companies that can use the materials productively. I like to compare it to the eBay of trash. Before eBay came around, if you had something in your attic and you put it out at a garage sale, you might get 50 cents for it. It turns out that on eBay there's this micro-market for that one item that wasn't evident when you looked at the immediate geography around your neighborhood. That's really what we're doing for materials in companies' dumpsters -- uncovering those hidden markets.

We're very focused on materials that are considered waste. If you look at the materials on our website right now, they're pretty much destined for a landfill. As we get further along, we also see RecycleMatch handling what we think of recyclable.

The idea is that whether you're giving it away or you're selling it, RecycleMatch is where you can go list it and create a lot of transparency around those materials -- while still maintaining confidentiality for your company. The company doesn't have to say XYZ Fortune 500 company is putting this in the landfill. They can create transparency and awareness around the materials without assigning it to their corporation.

What are some examples of RecycleMatch matches?

One of my favorite matches is [with] a company that's putting packaged foods on the shelf that we all use. That company was generating 90,000 pounds a week of food waste that we were able to divert to become an energy source.

We had another company that had a large high-rise building here in Houston. After Hurricane Ike, all the windows were damaged. They had to remove all the windows and their suppliers told them the glass was not recyclable. It's not [recyclable] in the traditional sense because it's got films and contaminants. But we found a company through RecycleMatch that was able to crush the glass and turn it into countertops and other building materials.

You mentioned that the companies can sell the materials to one another.

In the case of the windows, there was a small payment for the materials. But the national average for a landfill is $44 a ton. If they were going to put those windows in a landfill, they probably would have ended up spending $20,000 to $30,000. [With RecycleMatch] they might make a few thousand dollars. It's really the net swing of what they're saving and what they may be able to generate from selling it.

What's next for RecycleMatch?

Right now, we're very focused in the United States. We're focusing a lot of effort in some areas that we think are particularly under-served, like textiles and plastics. We will continue to grow and start to expand internationally when we feel like we're ready for that step.

Do you have anything else to add?

To me, transparency is really interesting because it spurs innovation. There are people out there -- maybe they're scientists or engineers, maybe they're in companies or they're entrepreneurs, maybe they're universities -- looking for something interesting or innovative they can work on. They don't know that there's 90,000 pounds of food waste or a huge glut of Styrofoam. Without that transparency around the materials that are available, they don't know where to focus their efforts. They don't know what materials they can get under market value that may be the key to their innovation. Now that they have a window into what materials are available, that may spark the idea.

Image: Brooke Farrell

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