CHAMPAIGN – Steven Rosenberg's office chair was once a car seat.
His apartment furnishings, including a leather couch, entertainment center and desk, all had previous lives before becoming part of his surroundings.
"Ninety percent of what's in my apartment is repurposed," Rosenberg said.
Reusing things – even for purposes for which they weren't designed – is Rosenberg's life and business. It's a practice he calls "reuseanomics."
He's put it to work in Green Purpose, a business he formed this spring.
"The business started pretty organically," said Rosenberg, 23. "I started refurbishing materials for personal use. So I could show all the useful things that people were throwing out, I turned my apartment into quote-unquote 'trash,' but no one could tell. It looked brand-new."
He began selling reclaimed merchandise on eBay and soon recognized the potential.
"I started formulating a business plan, crunching numbers, doing market research," before finally registering the business in April, Rosenberg said.
Housed at EnterpriseWorks in the University of Illinois Research Park, Green Purpose has three components:
– Collecting discarded material and selling it as is. Rosenberg recently found a battery analyzer in a trash bin, cleaned it up and sold it for $745.
But his methods go beyond Dumpster-diving. He also has a "junk hauling service" that will haul away items for $50 a truckload.
"On average, I'm able to utilize 65 percent of what I haul away," Rosenberg said. Another 20 percent is donated to organizations, leaving 15 percent for disposal.
The $50 charge is used to cover the cost of fuel, labor and disposal, he said.
– Building custom furniture from discarded items. In addition to the stand-alone closet he designed for Mara Eisenstein of the Illinois Green Business Association, Rosenberg has made University of Illinois-themed coffee tables, and he's planning to build a toy-room organizer for another client.
It comes naturally to Rosenberg, who became a certified carpenter after attending Butler Tech in the Cincinnati area.
– Selling recycled clothing with an environmental theme. Rosenberg came up with the "EcoFashion" idea after seeing what students tossed when they moved out.
"A lot would throw away bags and bags of brand-new clothes," he said.
"What we do is collect the clothes ... sanitize them, wash them twice and have them screen-printed through Gameday Spirit," Rosenberg said.
T-shirts of all sizes, styles and colors are imprinted with the "Don't be trashy" slogan, then offered for sale on the Internet. Rosenberg sells them at the Urbana farmers' market and is contacting local stores to see if they'll sell the clothes on consignment.
But clothes and furniture are sidelines to his main business of finding uses for what otherwise would be waste. In July, the business brought in "a little over $2,000," he said.
Rosenberg wants Green Purpose to grow and sees franchising as a possibility, but doesn't want to rush things.
"I'd like to master Champaign-Urbana first because we're all about community, all about local," he said. "Before we get into helping other communities out, we'd really like to change things up around here."
Rosenberg's roots are in Champaign County, where his grandparents, Ernie and Millie Rosenberg, operated the Ace Hardware store in Mahomet before retiring and selling the store.
Steven's mother, Cindy Rosenberg, worked at Carle for 23 years, and his father, Jerry, worked for Noritake. But when Steven was in fifth grade, his father got a promotion and the family moved to Cincinnati.
After high school, Steven studied carpentry at Butler Tech, then attended Parkland College with the hope of transferring to the UI in business administration. At Parkland, he was president of the business club.
Rosenberg said he's "always had a heart for building things." As a kid, he turned paint mixer sticks into "Ninja Turtle swords."
But it wasn't until about two years ago that he developed strong feelings about the need for reuse.
"I did a research paper on landfills, and it stuck in my head how much waste we really do produce," he said. "It started me thinking about how we shouldn't just go for the easiest answers. From a business standpoint, it just makes sense."
John Loe, regional manager for AAA Storage in Champaign and Urbana, got to know Rosenberg after the young entrepreneur paid him a visit.
"He came to my store with the proposition he would clean out units if he could keep whatever is there, whenever I had abandoned units or junk," Loe said. "Of course, there's no such thing as junk to him."
Now Loe is sold on Rosenberg's idea.
"I think he's got a winner," he said. "I think he's brilliant. He's got a great idea ... and his willpower alone is going to make it successful. Couple that with how hard he works, and it's hard for him to miss.
"I don't know anybody with more zeal than Steven. He's willing to work hard to do what it takes, and he has faith in his idea," he said. "Because of that, I have faith in his idea."
Others testify to Rosenberg's dedication.
Eisenstein, the Illinois Green Business Association's director of public engagement and special projects, said Rosenberg is "very passionate about making this a reality and not giving up.
"This is a dream. He doesn't want this to fail. ... Apart from the business, he wants to make a tangible impact and make people aware of other uses for discarded materials," she said. "Ultimately, he wants to create new markets for things that otherwise would have gone to a dumpster."
Rosenberg said Green Purpose helps local business owners reduce waste management costs. It also lessens the landfill tipping fees that haulers pay.
The company was one of 15 student-formed businesses that took part in the Illinois Launch Summer Start-Up program at the UI this year.
As for Rosenberg's family, he said they've had mixed reactions to his business idea.
"It's taken them a while to fully understand what I'm trying to do, but they're very supportive of me," he said. "I think they were a little worried at first because it sounds like such a different concept.
"My grandparents and parents are business people, and the typical business model is a + b = c. I have a lot more letters than that."
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