The World’s Greatest Garage Sale

The SWAP shop gives new life to UW surplus while helping the environment.

Customer browses selection of used items at UW Swap

SWAP till you drop: bargain hunters scan the shelves for books at the warehouse in Verona, Wisconsin. Jeff Miller

What do a vintage projector, a snowblower, and men’s size-15 sneakers have in common? How about a diesel fuel tank and a wheeled storage container? Well, they all originated on the UW–Madison campus, and they’re all up for grabs at the university’s SWAP shop.

SWAP, or “Surplus with a Purpose,” is just that: leftover, out-of-date, or extra supplies searching for a purpose beyond the landfill. SWAP is housed within the Division of Business Services, and its origins date back to the mid-’90s. The UW had been operating a surplus department prior to 1995, but in that year, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources instituted a program called the Solid Waste Alternatives Project that provided grants for finding landfill alternatives for surplus property. This helped the UW’s surplus operation formalize and expand.

Today, SWAP serves both the university and State of Wisconsin agencies in two key ways. First, it greatly reduces the state’s environmental footprint. SWAP collects more than 20 tons of surplus goods each week and has kept thousands of tons of material out of garbage dumps. In fact, SWAP began collecting so much unneeded-but-perfectly-good stuff that in 2007, its shop moved from Wright Street on Madison’s east side to a warehouse in Verona, Wisconsin. In a typical year, the warehouse is open for public rummaging on Fridays and occasional Saturdays, as well as Monday through Friday for specific groups, including UW departments and public schools. SWAP also offers an online auction for certain items. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, SWAP changed its operations from in-person browsing to exclusively online auctioning. (If you’re curious about SWAP’s current offerings, you can browse its auction site.)

SWAP also helps out state and local organizations. Nonprofits can get inventory such as classroom desks, dry erase boards, and even artwork donated. One can also find old-school tech, electronics, and for-parts machinery. So, calling all tinkerers and teachers, thrifters and treasure hunters: from diesel fuel tanks to wheeled storage containers to dry erase boards, the UW’s SWAP may very well be Wisconsin’s greatest garage sale.

Published in the Spring 2021 issue

Tags: Campus buildings, Campus history, Environment, recycle

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