Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and a New Life for Building Materials
“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is certainly a familiar phrase.
From a young age, we are taught to minimize our waste and footprint on the Earth. However, we may not learn how ineffective and broken the recycling system is in the United States.
One of the most significant components of this is the mishandling of old building materials, a topic that we will delve into later. Before, we must set up a brief history and analysis of recycling as a whole in the United States and its faults.
The reality is that while our “demolition culture” may play the most prominent part, recycling as a whole needs to be a priority in our world today. Over the past 60 years, we have increased our garbage output by almost 75% (Blogs.Ei, Columbia.edu).
Although we take the time to separate our recyclables from our trash, most of it is never truly recycled. Items mistook for recyclable ones or those not properly cleaned, for example, often get mixed and render the recycling bin a waste. One of the primary reasons for this issue is how and where the U.S. handles its recyclables or lack thereof.
In the past 30 years (Vox.com), China has been the largest importer of all of the world’s discarded materials, with the U.S. alone exporting 16 million tons of plastic, paper, and metals (Blogs.EI, Columbia.edu).
Unfortunately, 30% of the recycled building material exports end up contaminating and polluting the oceans and countrysides of China, yielding a grand total of over a metric ton of plastic in the waterways of China annually (Blogs.Ei, Columbia.edu).
However, China introduced the National Sword Policy in 2018, banning “the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors, which has cut nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter-century” (E360, Yale.edu). As one can imagine, this led to quite the upheaval in the processes cemented in the United States.
Following this ban, the U.S. diverted their attention to other countries, a move that has achieved only temporary “success.” First, they looked toward Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, but many, including Vietnam and Malaysia, soon banned this practice (rightfully so!).
After the door was shut in these regions, the U.S. turned towards countries with even more relaxed labor and tax laws, such as Ethiopia and Kenya. Since then, the practice has only grown, wreaking havoc, even violence, on these regions due to contaminated water sources, crop decay, and fumes (Blog.Ei, Columbia.edu).
However, while the effects of improper recycling had spread to other parts of the world, the recycling industry in the U.S. was still left in shambles. Communities used to generate revenue from recyclables, and now they have to pay to get them taken away.
For example, Stamford, a wealthy city on the gold coast of Connecticut, had to pay $700,000 in 2018 to rid themselves of the burden, whereas just a year early, their net cost was almost $100,000 in payments (Stamford Advocate).
This pattern extends across all of the United States, and the actual costs reach beyond this. Because of this reality, many towns and cities ended their recycling practices or charged their citizens for the service, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. With the lack of a federal recycling program and funding directed towards this goal, there does not seem to be an end in sight.
Enter the world of developing and building materials. In the United States alone, the market for the demolition of buildings is upwards of $4B a year. “Through this industry, it is estimated that roughly 104M tons of material flowed from project sites to the rest of the country, about 40% of the nation’s solid waste stream” (ArchDaily).
Circling back to the opening statement, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ it is imperative to understand how building materials come into play in this very motto. This crucial element that most people do not think of is exacerbating this crisis beyond recognition.
While it would be ignorant not to recognize that buildings need to be torn down sometimes when they cannot be repurposed, we must develop a more robust plan for obsolete materials. Current projections on almost all accounts show that our consumption of these materials is only on the rise. Whether or not this trend continues, one thing is clear; we cannot keep pumping them into landfills.
To truly understand why this occurs, it helps to have an insight into how a teardown crew functions on sight. In essence, when a contractor brings in a demolition crew, they also contract a waste hauling company to remove the debris and drop said materials off at the dump.
While many elements, such as doors, windows, and other finishing materials, could be preserved, they are often scrapped. The reasons for this are two-fold: it is easier and cheaper for waste companies to discard these items,, and, when tearing down the building, the contractor has no idea who would take them.
Consequently, these potentially-reusable items are often thrown away after demolition (ArchDaily). However, there have been substantial breakthroughs in the process, such as machinery to pull buildings apart rather than level them out, and systems that sort materials to be better recycled.
As promising as this may sound, most sites are not processing to this extent and efficiency, especially at projects with less funding. As it is clear that at least most contractors will not take the recycling into their own hands out of sheer cost-effectiveness, there needs to be an outside source to take this on. Hence, adaptive reuse arises. The way of the future is modernizing these old buildings, or using parts of these old buildings to ‘build for the times.’
Adaptive reuse, as defined by Merriman-Webster, “the renovating or reuse of pre-existing structures for new purposes.” It can extend to warehouses, residential buildings, and even some odd-ball structures such as the Jaegersborg Water Tower in Copenhagen, which was converted into a mixed-use housing structure (Arch Daily).
On the other hand, we have a project by the Lendager Group (Copenhagen) and their “Resource Row” project model (Arch Daily).
By taking recycled materials from locally demolished buildings and creating a structure composed of different brick styles from different periods and settings: historic breweries, schools, and homes, much of this waste can be diverted from its unfortunate fate. Two completely different methods: one used the pre-existing structure, and one repurposed the materials; however, there is one goal in common: eliminating waste.
While many other projects are sure to be in the works, they are not without their fair share of downsides. Adaptive reuse started as a niche industry and has grown substantially.
Even so, it is wildly unpredictable and can be incredibly expensive both regarding resources and time. By introducing old buildings and materials, you never truly know what you have until you are already too far gone into the project.
On top of this, permits and historical preservation efforts can be enough to drive anyone up a wall. When it works out, there can be a considerable upside due to cities’ willingness to rejuvenate old buildings, leading to economic incentives, and therefore higher margins.
However, this is a huge ‘if.’ Because of these barriers, it is hard to imagine that this practice will overcome the market for new building materials anytime soon (NREI).
As of July 17th, 2020 (market close), the industrial sector was -8.5%, but building products were up 4.58% (Fidelity), further lending to the theory of a lack of an imminent threat to the overall building materials industry.
The sector does not have to suffer; however, a realignment of priorities could be in the best interest of everyone involved. There is a place for new materials, and there is a place for reclaimed materials, it does not have to be one or the other, they can coexist.
The climate of demolition culture is far from gone in our society, and the only way that this will change is by a societal shift.
Organizations such as the EPA have launched initiatives such as the Lifecycle Building Challenge to design buildings for future planning that can be disassembled more easily. Today, recycling is not enough: because of the inefficiency of the process, we cannot entrust the materials to traditional methods.
The only truly effective way is to repurpose the contents into future building processes, which can be promoted by architectural trends and programs instituted by national, state, and local governments. Focus on this sector as a whole can lead to a substantial reduction in waste on a national and global scale, and the issue must not be taken lightly. Allow us to see this as an opportunity for growth within the sector, not the demise.
Developing paves the way for the future of America, let us not allow this task to fall into the wrong hands.
Written by Jack Argiro
Edited by Karina Thanawala, Michael Ding, Alexander Fleiss, Alexandar Ristic, Jared Nussbaum, Corina Perez-Cobb, Gihyen Eom