A Second Life For Office Surplus

March 31, 2003

David E. Leiva

There's no formal program. No actual funding or official name for the project. In fact, it's not really a project, more like an effort. But little by little, the word is getting out on the biggest bargain on campus. Free stuff. Everything from computers to furniture equipment to bed linens, all available to any department willing to pick it up and haul it away.

"It's the most effective reallocation of assets," said Scott Cordes, manager of moveable property management, which falls under the accounting office. Cordes and his staff of three are spearheading the recycling of unwanted surplus items in uptown and downtown departments, storing them until another department calls with a need. "[Equipment] shouldn't die because you don't need it anymore," he said.

For about 10 years, Cordes has been part of this recycling effort. It started on a smaller scale behind two file cabinets in the power plant building. Today, it takes up a large warehouse in Tulane's accounting and materials management office located at 8333 Maple St., the old Rohm's building. And it's not Cordes' primary responsibility. His real job is tracking all of the assets purchased by the university and reconciling them against the general ledger.

But, seeing him in a shirt and tie, visitors might mistake him for a well-dressed warehouse employee, moving furniture around to make room. Most often, the job is straightforward. Furniture and computers discarded by offices are immediately put back into circulation. Items that are either not aesthetically pleasing or not functional are cannibalized for parts. Either way there's no purchasing cost.

"If you came over here thinking you're going to get Ethan Allen furniture, you're going to walk away disappointed," Cordes said. Pat Peebles, executive secretary at the Newcomb Children's Center, understood that. She got wind of the effort and "really hit the jackpot" last year. "It was like having Christmas in October," she said.

The center banked three weather monitors, boxes of paper towels, bookcases, sofas, chairs and computers, among other things.

"We made a substantial savings on this year's budget," Peebles said, "which allowed us to use this money to upgrade children's classroom equipment and other areas of improvement."

Jose Alcaine, system administrator in the nephrology department at the medical school, didn't have the luxury of worrying about savings. He simply didn't have the money in the budget for a computer, even a cheap one for a staff member.

"Money is getting tighter," said Alcaine. "It's still an expense." Through a friend of a friend, Alcaine learned about Cordes' "garage sale." After a couple of e-mails--voila--Alcaine had a free, usable Pentium II, 350 megahertz Gateway computer after another office upgraded. As far as Alcaine sees it, he got a bargaina $600 computer for no cash outlay. "We got a decent computer for free," he said. "I got lucky."

Realistically, Cordes said, not everyone wants second-hand computers or furniture. Getting people to stop by and pick up is the easy part. It's the donations that are hard to come by, according to Cordes. Donations? Remember, there's no funding. Property management doesn't have a roaming truck ready to play "Sanford and Son."

If a department wants to donate a couple of chairs, it can either get staff to voluntarily drop them off, or submit a job order and pay for facilities services to move them. The alternative is what typically happens: The surplus is thrown away. And therein lies the challenge, getting people across the campus to see the long-term benefit, both fiscally and environmentally.

"It's the right thing to do," said Cordes.

Editor's note: For a list of currently available items, visit the materials management web site at

David Leiva can be reached at

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