Waste Exchanges Transformed: The Austin Materials Marketplace

Bob Gedert
RRS Affiliate Sr Consultant

Waste exchange, as defined by Wikipedia, is “where the waste product of one process becomes the raw materials for a second process.”

From the 1970s until recently, waste exchanges were administered through a newsletter format, listing the hard-to-recycle industrial or commercial item with a limited amount of specification and a contact number to call. These exchanges had limited success due to the restrictions of newspaper distribution and the passive nature of a publication.

Although the 21st century put a technology edge to the waste exchange network via the Internet with broader distribution, reduced operating costs, and the opportunity to update listings on a faster timetable, two problems persisted. The first was a need for personal pairing assistance. It still was a passive exchange network, until a person could be hired to make the connections and the calls to move trades along more smoothly. The second was the materials were still posted like a trade magazine – static and not sortable. As the waste materials list grew, the cumbersome chore of looking through an unsorted list became a barrier.

From Waste Exchange to Materials Marketplace

To turn the web-based approach away from “wasting” toward resource recovery, the City of Austin Resource Recovery Department offered a bid opportunity, seeking a new innovative approach. In 2014, the Austin City Council awarded the contract to the US Business Council for Sustainable Development (USBCSD), who brought with them a self-designed web-based tool to augment the pairing and redistribution of industrial discards.

The Austin Materials Marketplace – an initiative of the Austin Recycling Economic Development Program and a partnership between the City of Austin, national and local non-profits, and large and small businesses – went live online in 2015. The free program connects central Texas businesses, contractors, schools, non-profits, and manufacturers that have unwanted materials with those who could reuse them through a confidential online database, a dedicated program team’s facilitation efforts, and in-person networking events.

Unique to this program is a facilitated process that allows companies to understand each other’s material flows and stimulates collaborative and innovative solutions. After the exchange of information, a realistic check of feasibility is evaluated and then the exchange is agreed upon. The USBCSD project team augments the exchanges by leveraging best practices from their technical partners that include the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology, the Ohio State University’s Center for Resilience, and engineering expertise from partner companies.

Metrics to Demonstrate Success

Since the 2015 startup of the Materials Marketplace more than 180 transactions have been completed, with 216 active businesses and organizations.  The 26,000 cubic feet of material diverted from landfilling is equivalent a carbon footprint reduction of 437 MTCO2E.  It is estimated that at least $165,000 in disposal savings and value has been created.  The success of this exchange startup has spurred the USBCSD to initiate a national exchange network entitled the US Materials Marketplace.  For more information, visit the Austin Materials Marketplace website at http://austinmaterialsmarketplace.org/

International Award

The City of Austin received an Excellence in Economic Development Award in the category of Sustainable & Green Development for the Austin Materials Marketplace (Gold Excellence) for communities with populations greater than 500,000 from the International Economic Development Council (IEDC).

The implementation of circular economy projects like the Austin Materials Marketplace throughout the U.S. would have an enormous national economic impact. A 2014 study by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that over $1 trillion could be generated by 2025, and 100,000 new jobs could be created by 2019, if companies focused on creating circular supply chains that support reuse and remanufacturing.