From Mink Fat to Copper Pipe

Companies all over the world are cleaning out their garages by posting unwanted objects on Earthcycle's exchange

The old adage that one person's trash is another's treasure has gone digital. The National Materials Exchange Network, operated over the Internet by Earthcycle, a Woodland Hills, Calif., recycling company, is an electronic flea market.

Anyone with access to the World Wide Web can search through 12,000 postings in 30 categories. By the same token, any person or company that wants to get rid of something can add to the entries. Items for sale range from mink fat to copper pipe. Much more organized than the average neighborhood flea market, users can customize their requests to search for glass in Germany, or a clock in the 212 area code.

Earthcycle tracks users who, after looking at an entry, press a button to ask for specific contact information. The customer base is growing 25 percent a week, said Michael Silver, chief executive of Earthcycle. The latest count put users at 3,000 a week, and the most popular category is plastics.

Despite its success, the service still hasn't been able to do what seems elusive to Internet businesses: make money. Companies and browsers use the exchange for free. But Silver claims he never planned to make anything on the exchange. "This is an investment rather than an income-generator," Silver said.

Unlike most Internet businesses, such as shopping malls and travel agencies, however, the exchange does something that is not possible without the technology.

The service gained countrywide recognition last month when it won the National Information Infrastructure Award for the best business use of the Internet.

Silver thinks of himself as an environmentally minded matchmaker. One of his favorite matches, he said, was between a popcorn manufacturer with eight cubic yards of surplus a week and a nearby pig farmer. President Clinton even jogs on a running track made from recycled tires that a contractor found on the exchange. Other buyers have made potpourri and wind chimes with what some would call trash. Some items -- from caustic soda to a 1960 Dodge Dart -- have been offered free.

So far, customers have been mostly corporations, including Chevron, Motorola and IBM. But some individuals have listed unwanted computers, musical instruments and furniture, and have posted notices that they are looking for a certain object. Eventually, Silver expects the exchange's ease and 24-hour availability to take the service mainstream. A person sitting on a couch one evening could decide he wants a different color sofa, then list the old one and search for a new one in seconds. "He wouldn't have to wait for the Sunday classifieds to come out," Silver said.

The exchange's next project is to introduce real-time, international, electronic auctions. For example, a Tokyo company could list 50 tons of tin, or a Paris art gallery could post a painting. Possible buyers would then bid directly on the Web page.

Time to clean out the garage.

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