Recycled building materials trim waste and are cheaper, too

Centers for salvaged and donated building material sprout nationwide.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen / The Christian Science Monitor
Brad Krause (on forklift) runs the ReUse store in Minneapolis filled with salvaged building materials. Mick Pulsifer (ctr.) and Davo Raghubir also work here.

One of the world’s finest repositories of junk sits just off Route 55 in Minneapolis, about two miles south of the city’s new baseball stadium, Target Field. Here, in a cavernous warehouse, used toilets jostle for space with worn aluminum siding, and doors and cabinets reach in teetering stacks toward the ceiling.

On a rainy morning recently, Jamie Heipel weaves expertly between sheets of particleboard, pointing out, as he walks, the prices on each item. “This one is $50,” he says, resting his hand on a mint-condition dresser. “Much less than half of what you’d pay at Home Depot. In most cases, the stuff goes for about 50 cents on the dollar. Sometimes 40. Sometimes less. And we can’t keep it in stock.”

Mr. Heipel, a stocky former corporate businessman, is the executive director of a local environmental nonprofit called the Green Institute, and the de-facto head of its Re-Use Center initiative. Since 1995, the Center has been salvaging discarded building supplies and selling them at a deep discount from this warehouse. (In March, the Green Institute launched a second storefront in nearby Maplewood.)

Now Heipel is watching foot traffic soar – a direct result, he speculates, of the dismal global economy and a heightened eco-awareness on the part of consumers. “It’s helped our business tremendously,” Heipel says. “People are less likely to invest in a new house. They want to stay put, and they want their home to look good. And the people who are donating, they want to feel like they’re contributing to the community.”

It’s a familiar scenario for salvage and supply outfits across the country. In interviews this week with the Monitor, directors of organizations from Berkeley, Calif., to Astoria, Queens, reported a surge in sales volume and revenue. “We’ve been around for about nine years now, and the number of purchases in [October] were the highest we’ve ever had in a single month,” says Mike Gable, the executive director of
Construction Junction, a nonprofit “building material reuse retailer” based in Pittsburgh.

“Our revenue is 20 percent ahead of where it was last year,” Mr. Gable adds. “And we’ve had an incredible increase in people coming into our store.”

According to in-house figures provided by Gable, Construction Junction revenues are up nearly one-third from last year. November is shaping up to be another banner month, he says.

“We get a lot more calls these days, from the media and from contractors,” says Brad Guy, president of Building Materials Reuse Association, a national nonprofit that helps educate groups on deconstruction and recycling. “Every major publication has had a green edition recently. We’ve got the buzz about the whole green-jobs thing. It’s a buzzword, but it does translate – people are more interested in avoiding waste. We’re riding that wave.”

Most construction-supply re­­cycling organizations work on a relatively simple model, pioneered in part by the Re-Use Center. Supplies ranging from one-foot squares of glass to entire kitchen interiors are donated by private contractors or local residents. (Tax-deductibility varies by state.) Some programs, such as the Queens-based Build It Green! NYC, also employ a team of deconstruction experts who can strip and haul away reusable material from homes under renovation and demolition sites. The material is then displayed in a warehouse or storefront setting for contractors, consumers, or landlords to haul away.

“Think about it from a resource conservation perspective: You don’t need to be manufacturing that glass or mining that ore to make the doorknob,” explains Stephen Hammer, director of the Urban Energy Project at Columbia University’s Center for Energy, Marine Transportation, and Public Policy. “Less energy is used over the lifetime of that object.” It’s called “embodied energy,” Dr. Hammer adds, referring to the amount of energy expended on the creation of a product. “And it’s absolutely critical to the business sector.”

In 10 years, Heipel, of the Re-Use Center, estimates his program has kept close to 41,000 tons of waste out of local landfills. Justin Green, the program director of Build It Green!, says that reuse organizations also help cut down on the byproducts of traditional landfill use.

“Let’s say you have some debris that’s getting hauled out of a demolition site in New York,” Mr. Green says. “That material is going to get ground up in New Jersey, and then shipped out to Pennsylvania or Ohio, where the dumping fees are cheaper. Think about the amount of energy that’s expended there.”

Oscar Michel, the office manager at Urban Ore in Berkeley, Calif., says Americans have become “pretty hip” to the idea of large-scale construction recycling. “They’ll come in and say, ‘I don’t care about these windows either way, so I think I’ll give them to you first,’ ” says Mr. Michel. “And there’s some great stuff here. The bad economy has sort of helped us – in some cases, our numbers are better than they ever were before.”

But Urban Ore, unlike the Re-Use Center and Build It Green!, is a for-profit enterprise. They pay low-income Berkeley residents for scrap metal and plumbing and other building innards. “A lot of people survive on us,” Michel says, and since scrap metal prices are holding, it’s unlikely that the supply stream will dry up anytime soon.

For Gable of Construction Junction, it remains a pressing concern. “We’ve been kind of watching to see if people are going to not only stop buying homes but stop renovating,” he says. “Put off replacing their old kitchen with a new kitchen. Could the supply side of our organization slow down? Well, we haven’t seen it yet.”

• For a list of similar programs near you, go to the sustainable building page on EcoBusinessLinks.

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