On an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money, the team covered an interesting dilemma facing food banks. Food banks rely heavily on local donations, but also receive bulk donations from larger umbrella organizations from around the country. The problem was with distribution; often, the organizations located nearest to these bulk goods would be the recipients so as to save on transportation costs or to maximize the freshness of the products. Food banks in the far reaches of the country weren’t getting the same levels of distribution, and often the bulk donations they were getting were things that could survive the journey, but offered little or no nutritional value, like pickles. At the same time, a food bank in Idaho would receive a huge donation of potatoes because they were located close to where the bulk donation originated – but, being in Idaho, they already had a huge stock of potatoes available to them through local donations.
The existing distribution system wasn’t working for anyone. Ultimately, they created an eBay-like system where food banks could bid fictional money on bulk donations that would compliment their specific, localized needs, leading to a much more effective and equitable distribution of resources.
While I was reading through “Built to Last,” I couldn’t help but think that a similar platform might help create a larger and more comprehensive marketplace to make reusable construction materials available to affordable housing developers at little or no cost. Currently, there are several organizations that accept donations of deconstructed materials and resell them in retail locations across the country, a similar structure to food banks. But, while geographical limitations may not cause the same issue with hardware as they do with food, there certainly could be an issue of agglomeration. A developer may need 2,000 ceramic tiles for a project, but a recent donation from the deconstruction of a house in the local area may only provide 50. Meanwhile, a huge deconstruction project across the country could provide the additional 1,950 tiles needed, but the current disconnect makes it difficult or impossible for the developer to acquire them.
I envision a platform where affordable housing developers are given access to a national inventory of materials that they can place bids on daily (with a type of fake currency) dependent on their needs. This should create shared value – those who donate get tax savings from the value of their donated products, and affordable housing companies are able to cut some costs from their construction budgets and the reuse of construction materials will help towards creating a more sustainable product.
To listen to “The Pickle Problem,” click here: