Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose

The numbers are staggering. ConExpo-Con/Agg and IFPE 2011, the international gathering place for the construction industry, attracted nearly 120,000 attendees from more than 150 countries and 2,400 exhibitors who used more than 4.7 million square feet of exhibit space in Las Vegas. The 2011 show, held March 22-26 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, was the largest in North America since 2008.

Welcoming the group were four huge banners hung from the Marriott next to the Las Vegas Convention Center. Each measured 100 feet long by 80 feet wide, totaling 32,000 square feet. 
In years past, come March 27 those banners would move towards a landfill. This year, they were transformed into a 4,000-square-foot sunshade that protects the College of Southern Nevada child care facility’s playground—among other projects. The banners weren’t bleached out, giving the sunshade an edgy, yes-I’ve-been-repurposed kind of message. The awning now protects 65 kids from the Nevada sun and saved the school the $3,500 it would have cost to purchase a new sunshade.

As is the case with most schools, “we do not have any extra money, so this was a great surprise,” says Garry Moon, project manager at the college. Kelly Holtam, manager of the college’s child care services, adds, “The new sunshade is fantastic. It’s much more heavy duty than the one we had that was destroyed by the wind. And each square of the new one has different writing on it, which is really cool.”

This transformation was made possible with the help of Repurpose America, a Las Vegas-based non-profit organization that helps companies repurpose materials that cannot be recycled. Repurpose America works with some 300 community programs in southern Nevada and has directly benefited more than 100,000 people. The organization has also created jobs for wounded veterans and those with disabilities.

Repurpose America is the brainchild of 28-year-old Zachary Delbex, who started the company in 2007. “I try to push innovation and education, thinking outside of the box,” he says. “We educate businesses and show them doing the right thing isn’t going to negatively affect the bottom line. Not only am I an idealist, but I am also a realist. I understand that in the economy we’re in, if it’s going to cost money, they are not going to do it. My philosophy is that sustainability does not make sense unless it saves money or makes money for our clients.”

Repurpose America worked closely with show producer Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), the Las Vegas Convention Center, and show general contractor GES during ConExpo’s waste-collection process—to an impressive end. More than 442 tons of waste were produced from the event with nearly 338 tons recycled, for a recovery rate of over 76 percent. Compared to the last show, in 2008, there was a 25.5 percent increase in the recovery rate.

Delbex, born and bred on the Big Island of Hawaii, moved to Las Vegas in 2001, bringing with him the respect for the environment prized by Hawaiian culture.

He set out to become a massage therapist, but when a fellow student who worked for a trade show company mentioned they were hiring peak-season help, Delbex got a job as a Teamster forklift operator, setting up booths and dismantling old ones.

“It was such an eye-opening experience. Right there, in front of my eyes, I witnessed the economics of business,” he recalls. “I watched as a large shoe company, one out of more than 1,500 exhibitors, made $324 million in sales in four days. It was so amazing to watch.

“I was moving freight in and out, which offered me a unique perspective from the booth level, the show level, and the city level. No matter where I worked—at the convention center, Mandalay Bay, or the Riviera—every facility faced the same hurdles,” he recalls. “Companies left things behind because of logistics and time constraints, and because they didn’t have options. Everyone in the industry said there had to be a better way. I told myself I could do something.”

His crusade started with a cell phone, a truck he bought at an auction, and his garage. He had community organizations on speed dial—Do you need t-shirts, promotional items, food? Some items just need a new home. Others, like the vinyl banners, need to be repurposed.

Delbex began by offering his services to the trade show industry for free, becoming a clearinghouse of sorts for materials in order to perfect his concept and demonstrate how it could save money. “I’m creating an industry within an industry. GES, Freeman—these are billion-dollar, multi-national companies. I’m trying to inject a new concept into these billion-dollar organizations.”

Over the years, Delbex’s operation has moved from a 20-by-20-foot garage to a 15,000-square-foot warehouse. His staff now totals 25, three-quarters of whom have various disabilities. 

In the future, Delbex hopes to expand to markets outside of Las Vegas. “We have such a positive impact on the community long after the show is gone. Take ConExpo. It left nearly four months ago and [the effects of the show are] still reverberating throughout the community.”

The materials Repurpose America collects are often surprising. A Las Vegas hotel recently underwent an expansion and wound up not using 16 crates of mahogany panels. There were 100 panels per crate, each worth $30—that’s $48,000 worth of resources that were donated to six schools and a Boy Scouts program. 

The World Tea Expo recently turned to Repurpose America for help. Among the items recovered from its event were 200 pounds of tea. “We reached out to the health industries that support our local residences. The tea made it to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Cancer Center of Southern Nevada, and [locally based] Red Moon Dialysis, where it will benefit hundreds of patients, volunteers, and health practitioners,” says Delbex.

Patti Shock, professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is a big Delbex supporter. “I want him to be successful and other cities to follow suit. His work helps save the landfill and employs veterans and the disadvantaged in the process. How much more perfect can that be?” says Shock. 

“To watch his workers repurpose vinyl signs and foam core into swag bags, badge holders, and wallets was amazing,” she adds. “There were stacks of potting soil from a home and garden show in the warehouse that would have been thrown away had it not been for Repurpose America. We hear so much about recycling, but not much about repurposing. We need to get exhibitors aware of this.” 

She’s getting involved too. Shock taught a social media class this summer and had students work with Repurpose America to create a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and YouTube videos.