Turning Trash into Treasure

Entrepreneur Nathan Benjamin and PlanetReuse help find new homes for old, but reusable building materials. Learn how they’re making a difference—and a profit. One building contractor’s trash is another building contractor’s treasure, but only if it can be saved from being chucked in the dumpster.

 Enter Nathan Benjamin, founder and CEO of PlanetReuse, to the reuse rescue. The 40-year-old entrepreneur’s pioneering company offers the first online marketplace and mobile app to help contractors and others buy and sell used building materials that can be incorporated into new constructions and remodels throughout North America.

Whether it’s salvageable doors, windows, cabinetry, flooring, sinks, carpet tile, toilet partitions or almost any other remnant of a deconstructed or demolished structure—an elevator, anyone?—Benjamin wants to keep it out of a landfill and find a sustainable fit for it in a commercial or residential dwelling.  His message to contractors is as straightforward as his desire to tap the $14 billion industry in reclaimable construction materials.

“I want to know about your junk coming out of your project,” Benjamin said from PlanetReuse headquartersin downtown Kansas City. “We find a home for your reusable materials.”  Because it’s not really rubbish, until it’s thrown away: About 40 percent of materials that go into landfills come from the construction industry. And it’s estimated that 80 percent of that material could be reused at a cost of 40 to 60 percent less than new materials.

“Reuse of building materials is in the infancy where recycling was 25 years ago,” Benjamin said. “We see reuse on the same trajectory, just lagging behind.  “Our goal is to be a facilitator, where we can actually know the people that have this material in storage,” he said. “We sell it and incorporate into a job, and then let them load it onto a truck and it goes right to the job site.”

Benjamin’s effort to get the reuse industry up to speed has made him a thought leader in green building. He publishes a newsletter reaching 16,000 national contacts and is an in-demand speaker at industry events, such as Greenbuild, the world’s largest conference devoted to eco-friendly construction that annually attracts 35,000 attendees. Last year, The Wall Street Journal recognized PlanetReuse as one of 24 companies featured in the “WSJ Startup of the Year” documentary video series. Benjamin appreciates the attention, but views it as a reciprocal duty.

“The industry needs a leader in a lot of ways—not that I am it, but our company is,” he said. “And I feel that with the professionalism and the level of expertise that we bring, we are really making an impact.”

 Material Issues

Benjamin had no experience with reusable materials when he graduated with a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Kansas in 1997. He just wanted to build “cool things”—first as a construction manager with engineering and design firm Burns & McDonnell in Kansas City; next as a general contractor with McCownGordon Construction in Kansas City, which in 2007 assigned him to oversee the rebuilding of the destroyed high school in tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan.

As the project’s senior manager, Benjamin collaborated with the innovative architectural firm BNIM in Kansas City, which favored reusing construction materials to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification, the highest rating given in the design and construction of a building’s green status.

So the project team located a warehouse in California with 80,000 board feet of material that was re-milled into wood paneling for hallways and classrooms in the rebuilt high school. Another find came in Louisiana, where trees blown over in Hurricane Katrina—rather than being chopped into mulch—were turned into the school’s exterior siding.

Benjamin’s appreciation for utilizing reused materials was growing thanks to his experience in Greensburg. But it didn’t strike him as an entrepreneurial business opportunity until the day he got an anxious phone call from the superintendent of an office remodeling project back in Kansas City who was looking for way to unload materials (aka “junk”) coming out of his job.

“He was calling and asking, ‘Where do I put this material?’” Benjamin said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to throw it away, because it counts against us on our LEED scorecard and project goals. What do I do with it? I can’t recycle it. What do I do?’”

Seeing that need, PlanetReuse was started in 2008 to make the connections between the trash dumpers and the treasure seekers. Still, it took the personal remodeling of his own home in Kansas City’s historic Union Hill neighborhood for Benjamin to totally connect with his green side.

“It really got me thinking, as I was taking things out of the house,” he said. “It was like, ‘How can I make sure as many of my items as possible don’t end up in the dumpster?’ So it was a personal realization in my own construction that allowed me to really buy into this and get passionate about it, because there are so many opportunities.”

‘We Want To Be the Solution’

Six years after it began—|including what Benjamin calls “grinding through” the recession’s negative impact on the construction trade—PlanetReuse has become a thriving yet shifting business.

“The number one customers are architects and contractors,” Benjamin said. “The point of entry is the architects, because they can design the project, and then ultimately we work for the contractors to provide the materials for them while they do the job.”

But with PlanetReuse’s online marketplace, and especially its groundbreaking iOS and Android mobile app (developed by its sister company, InvenQuery), which feeds the marketplace in real-time, the company wants to move toward a much higher volume of business.

“Yeah, it’s great if we did 200 projects,” Benjamin said. “But what if we allowed 2,000 or 200,000 projects to get done, and we got a really small piece of that, but we brought the processes and the ability to make the connections? Making the buying reused materials as easy as buying new is our goal.

“You look at AutoTrader with cars, and you look at Amazon when they originally started off with books—what did they do? They brought technology and a viewing of the items online to an industry that lacked it. So what we have is this very similar opportunity for bringing materials into the marketplace and showing them to people to allow them to connect and buy them. That’s the shift.”

The process is further enhanced by PlanetReuse’s strategy of coordinating donations of material from contractors to thousands of reuse and salvage centers throughout the country. That includes the company’s relationship with 850-plus Habitat for Humanity ReStores that can accept massive amounts of, say, used carpet tile still in good condition from a contractor wanting to get rid of it without harming the environment.

“A contractor or a homeowner or anybody can contact us and say, ‘I have these materials,’” Benjamin said. “And they can access our form and take photos with their smartphone or tablet and submit them immediately. It’s allowing a contractor on a job—whether on a multifamily project, a commercial project, a total deconstruction or a tenant finish where they’re gutting an office space—to use this form and say, ‘I’m taking these cabinets out’ or ‘I’m taking down this light fixture,’ and when they hit ‘send’ it goes right into our system.

“So if there are materials coming out of San Diego or Columbus, Ohio, we can either go to this network of over 850-plus stores, or we can go through our other channels that we have relationships with. But the main thing is when that contractor calls, he doesn’t care which one it goes through. He just wants to get rid of that problem. And we want to provide the solution.”

And the foundation of that solution, Benjamin said, is being able to reach more customers with fewer touch points.“You want to be able to scale this thing out,” he said. “And, to be honest, brokering materials has a lot of touch points. I have to touch a project for a year sometimes to get a product into it—and that’s a lot of time.

“With a scalable opportunity, I want to sell a million sinks next year. And I never want to see one of them, except maybe on the website. I want somebody else to do that, because if you provide the tools to enable that to happen, that’s really where the success is.”

 A Father’s Legacy

Before PlanetReuse, there was no online space dedicated to buying and selling reclaimable building materials that would otherwise end up in landfills. But despite technical advances and new efficiencies to ease the problem, are there materials that still can’t be reused?

“Anything with asbestos or lead paint,” Benjamin said. “Gypsum board, like drywall, actually cannot be reusedbecause it breaks. And structural steel is challenging, because of red tape and it’s hard to find. But there are opportunities with just about every material. It’s just a matter of finding the people that are interested in using them.”

Increasingly, Benjamin’s interest reaches well beyond commerce. He worries about the future of the planet, and how the 8,000 landfills that were available in 1998 are now down to fewer than 1,500.

“They have been reducing over the years, because they just fill up—they’re full,” he said. “And as the number of landfills continues to dwindle, I think about my 4-month-old son, Lucas. When he’s 20 years old, he won’t have any landfills to put stuff into. What’s going to happen? Where are theygoing to put this stuff?” As much as possible will go back into buildings, if PlanetReuse has anything to say about it.

“There’s not one person who doesn’t live or work in a building,” Benjamin said. “Whether or not you’re spiritually or emotionally attached to doing good for the world, landfills are filling up. We all have this problem. “And, if my son, looking back, can say that we helped to shape the efforts to divert all this material from the landfills, that’s a huge legacy I’d love to leave.”

Compliments of Community Investor Magazine 

Article by Brian McTavish is a senior writer for Community Investor magazine.