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Dial Fellowship

Beyond Recycling

How a digital marketplace for excess goods helps corporations, schools and governments drastically reduce waste and save millions.

6 min read

If you want to throw a piece of trash away at the Chicago headquarters of Rheaply, you’re going to need to walk. That’s because there’s only one garbage can in an office with nearly 60 employees. This isn’t an oversight, it’s a core value for the growing company.


Founded in 2015 by trained neuroscientist Garry Cooper, Rheaply—a mashup of the words “research” and “cheaply”—is a technology company that helps academic institutions, corporations, and even cities share and reuse their physical assets, instead of sending them to landfills. Rheaply’s clients, which include MIT, Google, the U.S. Air Force, and the City of San Francisco, get a simple, easy-to-use interface that helps track physical assets like old computers, office furniture, lab equipment, even construction materials—and then sell, trade, donate or rent these assets. They can do this with internal departments, or with other organizations entirely.


“Essentially, we want to build a marketplace, like Craigslist or eBay, for any organization’s old stuff,” says Cooper, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow.


The statistics around corporate waste are truly staggering. Data shows that an estimated $630 billion worth of workplace resources sit unused or awaiting liquidation, and that research organizations throw out about 67 cruise ships worth of plastic annually. And then there’s the issue of building materials, like concrete, steel, glass, doors, and fixtures. In the U.S. alone, 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris are generated each year—about twice the amount of municipal waste. On a global scale, manufacturing these materials accounts for 11 percent of global greenhouse emissions.

Boosting the “circular economy” is a powerful way to prevent such waste. The concept is very simple. Think, for example, of used textbooks or hand-me-down clothes. When the person who bought them no longer needs them, they pass items on to the next person, or re-sell them to recoup a portion of the costs. This means fewer objects need to be created, less money is spent in purchasing them, and objects have multiple “lives” before ending up in landfills. And because it’s less resource-intensive than recycling, everyone wins.


“Companies around the United States and the world are thinking about how to get to net zero emissions. They can’t recycle their way there. That’s been proven,” explains Cooper. “You need to use technology to connect people who have stuff to the people who need it, within the same organization and also in the wider community.”


Rheaply, which just raised 20 million in new funding, does just this. And in addition to the impact it could have on the corporate bottom-lines and the environment, it could also open up economic opportunity, getting materials to communities that need them the most.

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Garry Cooper at the 2021 Dial Summit.

Cooper’s professional interest in reuse was sparked at Northwestern University, while studying Parkinson’s disease and working toward a PhD in a large, well-funded lab. “​​Lots of funding typically means lots of stuff—microscopes, chemicals, [and] PPE,” says Cooper. “I would go to lunch with other graduate students in labs that received less funding, and they’d say, ‘Oh, if only I had this or that, I could do these things.’ I’d think, ‘We have that on the shelf in our back room.’”


With his supervisor’s permission, Cooper bought a cart. Every month, he would fill it up with things his lab wasn’t using anymore and roll it around, so others could use what they needed. “People loved it,” he says. “So much so that, when I left my post, people would email me like, ‘Hey Garry, where's the cart?’ It made me think: What if we built technology to replace that cart?”


Together with friends, Cooper created a business plan for Rheaply. Initially the idea was to focus on research labs like the one he had worked in—which is a huge need, because scientists rarely know how much of their budget is being wasted, and often have to set aside equipment and materials as their experimental needs shift. But since launching, Rheaply has expanded beyond labs, opening up its tools to tech companies, big-box retailers, nonprofits, and even governments, connecting them all into one big resource-sharing community. “We share things in our homes, in our social circles,” says Cooper. “If we're letting people use the back of our car or an extra bedroom in our home at scale, how is it possible that we're not sharing things in the working world?”

We have so many tools to purchase stuff, but we don't really have easy, robust tools for reuse.

GARRY COOPER

When an organization joins, Rheaply helps them make a strategic plan to reach net zero waste and begin to operationalize it. The first stop on that journey is Rheaply’s Resource Exchange Platform, which lets users quickly and easily photograph unused goods, pick the category, list the number of items available and the desired price or outcome. They also gain access to a wider marketplace of other organizations doing the same, where they can buy items outright, make an offer, request items they need, and get notifications when those items become available. From there, Rheaply helps users track the impact, estimating how much embodied carbon they’ve diverted from landfills and set specific reuse goals.


“We have so many tools to purchase stuff, but we don't really have easy, robust tools for reuse,” Cooper says. “That’s what Rheaply is doing.”


Cooper and his team have noticed that organizations tend to start out on Rheaply by posting furniture, and quickly work up to listing IT equipment like monitors, mice, and cords. Occasionally, when construction or demolition is planned, companies will post building materials too, and that’s where the waste avoidance and carbon-saving potential skyrockets.


Universities and municipal teams have found a lot of success using the software. Within three days of joining the Rheaply platform, the University of Chicago prevented $700,000 in research supplies from ending up in landfills. When Rush University Medical Center needed to demolish a building, more than 19,000 pounds of furniture were salvaged and used to fill staff member requests in other buildings. And last year, Rheaply announced a partnership with the City of San Francisco, focused on making construction salvage available to the city’s small businesses and nonprofits. Throughout each of these partnerships, Rheaply doesn’t just help the clients save money, but also helps them document reused materials to count toward LEED certification.


But perhaps the most remarkable illustration of the platform’s potential is from 2019, when Rheaply ran a three-week-long trial with Google’s Real Estate & Workplace Services department, helping them coordinate a move from several decentralized warehouses to a single, centralized one. “We were not only able to reuse a lot of that stuff and get it back into use,” Cooper says. “But all the things that we couldn't get into use in those warehouses, we were able to send to Oakland high schools and elementary schools, for whatever purposes teachers wanted.”


It’s a phenomenon Cooper noticed during his lab cart days back at Northwestern: When materials stay in circulation, cheaper and free goods can flow to those who simply don’t have as much in resources. These goods—whether research equipment or technology—give students and entrepreneurs the discounted, raw materials that feed ingenuity and business pursuits. Cooper believes that building up the circular economy in the U.S. will help expand access to opportunity.

We share things in our homes, in our social circles. If we're letting people use the back of our car or an extra bedroom in our home at scale, how is it possible that we're not sharing things in the working world?

GARRY COOPER

For now, Cooper says he’ll know that Rheaply is a success when companies think about what to do with unused resources the same way they think about purchasing new ones. But his ultimate ambition is even bigger.


Just imagine, he says, a “circular city” — a local, enclosed economy with no waste, because every single material is going back into use. What if the goods we need and use every day – furniture, clothing, kitchenware, textbooks – could be reused again and again across a city? “A circular city really means that there is a more even spread of economic prosperity across the city, with shrinking chasms between the haves and the have-nots, because resource sharing can happen seamlessly across the city.”

“Ultimately, we want to create a world without waste,” he says. One in which trash cans everywhere no longer seem so essential.