Last year when green architect Brad Hardin began designing a Kansas City middle school to be built with reused building materials, he found himself spending as much time digging through salvage yards as he did designing the school. He drove around the countryside looking for old barns, sifted through dark warehouse basements and befriended demolition crews. Finding the right reclaimed materials—floors, doors, support beams, windows—for a large construction project is like putting together a wardrobe at a thrift shop. Nothing fits, nothing matches, and you’ll redesign the whole look ten times before you find a combination that works.
The painstaking experience led Hardin to start an online eBay-style marketplace to help buyers and sellers of reclaimed building materials find each other. Hardin launched the site, PlanetReuse, in March, and it is one of several such marketplaces tailored to green industries popping up online.
The idea is to build an online inventory more targeted than eBay, searchable by location and stocked with sellers who know how to describe and ship their products. Some sites offer forums for discussion.
“I like it because it brings everybody together,” says Tabitha Long, who posted items to PlanetReuse from her salvage store in Chicago. “Say I have a lot of doors—I might need to find people who have door knobs,” she says. Lately she has been sending out emails in search of ornamental bathtub plumbing parts, but with little success.
The sites must amass enough sellers to give buyers lots of options within their geographic region. For economical and logistical reasons, most people won’t buy reclaimed building materials outside a 100-mile radius, estimates Brad Buy, president of Building Materials Reuse Association a non-profit dedicated to facilitating the reuse of recovered building materials.
“The energy saved by reuse starts to be negated the further distance the materials travel,” he says. Rona Fried, president of SustainableBusiness.com, adds: “You’d need a huge amount of material on these sites to find what you want locally."
So far, 64 items have been listed for sale on PlanetReuse and the sellers are scattered around the country. Someone in California is selling a $5,450 old English-style wood door. A Kansas City seller listed 600 square feet of reclaimed Oak barn wood for $654. A contractor in St. Louis is selling a pair of six-foot ivory terra cotta griffins for $40,875. A Denver seller wants to donate to a “good home” a pile of smooth river rocks.
Buyers on PlanetReuse get a printout that documents the distance traveled by the material, which is critical for LEED certification, a green building rating system. There is no fee to list or search for items, and, unlike an auction, there is no deadline for the sale. “It’s hard to schedule construction around waiting for an auction to end,” says Hardin. PlanetReuse takes a commission of two to three percent on sales.
Such marketplaces may appeal most to small businesses and hobbyists. FillmoreFuels, an online biofuels marketplace that also launched in March, seems to attract boutique biofuels producers and people making biodiesel in their garages or on their farms. Up for sale are home biodiesel processors and small containers of catalysts and vats of waste vegetable oil. The site has adopted an auction model with no listing fees.
“It’s a way to connect with people without getting into contracts and having to buy large quantities,” says Rick Kment, a biofuels analyst with DTN, a news and information service covering agriculture and transportation. Large biofuels producers have established distribution routes for buying and selling products and would have little use for an online auction, he says.
The site may be perfect for folks like Jack Arons. Arons is a cattle rancher in Center Hill, Florida who buys ingredients for making biodiesel—excess drums of methanol and bags of potassium hydroxide—and resells them locally. Arons says he usually posts his chemicals for sale on Craigslist and classifieds sites, which aren’t targeted to biofuels. He recently began listing on FillmoreFuels as well.
The founder of the site, Wesley Fillmore, was a mechanic in the military who developed a passion for biodiesel vehicles. He considered starting a biodiesel company, but found it difficult to break into the business. “I’m hoping this website makes it easier for people,” Fillmore says.
Fillmore and Hardin have set the lofty goals of revolutionizing their industries with their websites, and they are not alone. The National Biodiesel Board in the next couple of months plans to launch a message board to allow users to buy, sell, and trade biodiesel products. And a number of waste exchanges exist online, some geared toward building materials. California’s CalMAX is a state-run waste exchange website with sale and want listings for everything from linen lamp shades to surplus school furniture. The EPA maintains a list of waste exchanges.
But Fillmore and Hardin’s biggest obstacle may be attracting enough sellers to, well, attract sellers. “I’m not sure we’d use the site until it was more popular,” says Justin Green, who runs a retail salvage store in New York. “That’s the trouble with these online communities."
Guy says that to have any real impact, Hardin must reach beyond the niche market of homeowners to architects and designers. To that end, Hardin says that over the next couple of weeks he will embark on a marketing campaign to alert 50,000 architects to his site.
Story by Emily Waltz. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.