When the University of Minnesota decides to get rid of a desk, or a chair, or a piece of equipment, it doesn't throw those items into a landfill.
The unwanted "stuff" gets sent to a warehouse tucked in an industrial section of Minneapolis. Sometimes it's reused by the university. Other times a member of the public finds a way to use it.
Either way, in these tough economic times the U of M's Reuse Warehouse is seeing an uptick in demand.
Walking through the University of Minnesota's massive reuse warehouse is like visiting a museum for office furniture. There are metal desks from the '50s and '60s stacked all the way to the ceiling, probably 40 feet high. There are hundreds of chairs, desks, tables, cabinets, metal shelving, and even some sort of medical device in the corner.
"I don't know if it's the proper terminology, but I always think of us as the University of Minnesota garage sale," said Chris Hruza, who runs the Reuse Warehouse.
Hruza said employees of the University of Minnesota can come to the 30,000-square-foot facility and take what they need, as long as it's for use at work.
Everyone else can buy whatever catches their eye when the warehouse opens its doors to the public on Thursdays.
For instance, you could pick up an office chair for less than $10. Or how about a 1950s steel desk that looks sturdy enough to double as a bomb shelter? It's yours for $50.
And whose basement family room wouldn't look better with a round conference table from the 1970s, complete with a funky florescent orange base? You load it yourself, $30.
But it's the creative re-users that Hruza loves doing business with. He's sold whole buildings worth of old slate chalkboards to people who've turned them into kitchen countertops, or flooring.
"It's always gratifying to see someone take something that's obsolete in what it was designed for, and find an entirely new use for it," Hruza said.
You can see one of those creative reuses here on the U of M campus, at the system test and development area lab for the communications division.
Standing among racks filled with noisy, fan-cooled computer equipment, Daniel Westacott said the office chairs in this room, as well as the work benches strewn with computer parts, come from the Reuse Warehouse.
But here's where frugality and creativity truly intersect.
Not long ago, Westacott set up a Wi-Fi system for an outdoor technology fair. He needed stands to raise Wi-Fi antennae five or six feet off the ground. So he built his own, using lamps from the Reuse Warehouse. They had been abandoned by students in their dorm rooms after they moved out.
University bean counters most likely appreciate that approach. Westacott said a stand made specifically to raise Wi-Fi equipment off the ground could cost as much as $150. His creativity didn't cost the U a cent.
For the University of Minnesota, squeezing every last bit of use out of its own property makes economic sense, especially during a time of shrinking budgets.
Reusing what the U doesn't want makes economic sense for others as well.
Like Karen Terhaar, who visited the reuse center on a recent Thursday. Terhaar works at the International Spanish Language Academy in Minnetonka. Terhaar ended up buying more than her Toyota Prius could carry.
"A large metal shelf, a small working table for our classroom, two office chairs and a bulletin board," Terhaar said.
Terhaar spent $140. She figures she would have spent that much on just one new table or chair.
"If we save money on furniture, we get to spend more money on text books and materials for kids that they have right in their hands," Terhaar said. "We also kind of advocate that and teach that to kids, so if we're modeling it by outfitting our school with reused equipment I think that's a good model."
Officials at the University of Minnesota's reuse center say they've seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in use of their facility this year, and they say that's directly related to the slumping economy.
But things can't be all that bad. After all, no one has snapped up those fluorescent orange conference tables.