SWAP offers new life to campus cast-offs

Nov. 29, 2012

by Greg Bump

Photo: Book shopping at SWAP

Bargain seekers browse thousands of former Department of Public Instruction books while shopping for bargains during one of the twice-weekly public sales held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Surplus With a Purpose warehouse.

Photo: Jeff Miller

For the folks who run SWAP, nearly every public sale day is reminiscent of Black Friday.

“As soon as we open the doors in the morning, there are 60 or 80 people standing in line waiting to get in,” says Matthew Thies, inventory control supervisor for Surplus With a Purpose, which sells surplus property from UW–Madison and elsewhere in state government.

Photo: film processor at SWAP warehouse

A vintage film processor, now listed for auction, is stored at UW–Madison’s Surplus With a Purpose (SWAP) warehouse in Verona.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Like the post-Thanksgiving shopping ritual, some SWAP customers have been known to sleep in their cars in the parking lot overnight to be the first in line at the door — all to get the first crack at computers, office equipment, household items and other good-as-new merchandise the outlet sells.

The volume of materials SWAP processes annually is astounding. In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended June 30, SWAP made 1,956 surplus pickups from UW departments and state agencies in the Madison area.

 “We get pretty much a complete turnover in the merchandise on our sales floor every month,” Thies says.

SWAP also does a vigorous online sales business, and promotes products regularly on its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

In all, more than 92 percent of the material SWAP received was redistributed, donated or recycled, and $437,443 from the sale of discarded equipment was returned to the donors.

What isn’t sold is recycled. More than 680,000 pounds of e-waste — discarded office equipment, computers or appliances — was processed and shipped by SWAP in fiscal year 2012, and 663,000 pounds of metal was recycled, according to Thies.

Over the same period, SWAP redistributed 911 desks and 4,966 chairs.

SWAP receives hundreds of computers each month, and they and their components are among the most popular resale items. Staff are careful to remove all sensitive and protected information from data-containing devices prior to resale.

Last year the Department of Public Instruction turned over 480,000 books and records to SWAP, many of them first editions and in foreign languages. So far the SWAP staff have sorted through about 30 percent of the titles.

Photo: dishes for sale at $0.05 each

Customers can look through shelves full of dinnerware while shopping for bargains during one of the twice-weekly public sales held at the SWAP warehouse.

Photo: Jeff Miller

A treasure trove of old maps is currently drawing a lot of interest. SWAP picked up the maps from Science Hall recently — about 550 outdated charts depicting obsolete boundaries of the old Soviet Union or colonized Africa.

Shoppers can find all kinds of useful household items on display, and they can be had at a low, low price. SWAP picks up dozens of outdated dormitory mini-fridges and sells them for as little as $5. Thousands of pieces of dinnerware can be purchased for a nickel apiece.

But there are also plenty of oddities to be found at SWAP.

Thies points out an imposing-looking machine with a series of metal plates, rollers and gears. It looks like it may have been used to process film, but no one’s quite sure what its purpose was. An online buyer expressed interest, but when he came to SWAP, saw the piece and found out just how heavy it was, backed out.

Some of the items have to be sold to distinct markets. For instance, SWAP sometimes receives machines with lasers, which require a special permit to obtain. In another case, the agency received from a law enforcement agency a discarded pepper spray fogger, used for crowd control purposes.

It’s hard to put a price on some of the more obscure items.

“Sometimes we get items and we have no idea what the value is,” Thies says.

The mission of SWAP is to give the equipment a second life and keep the discarded items from the landfill. Finding a buyer for an item, no matter how unknown its use might be, is the first priority. Sometimes those odd items end up in the hands of collectors or artists, Thies says.

“Re-use is always better than recycling in our minds,” Thies says.

The SWAP store, located at 1061 Thousand Oaks Trail, Verona, is open to state and local government agencies and schools Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the second Saturday of each month from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The general public can shop on Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fridays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the second Saturday of every month from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.