Building Material Reuse Association – Editorial on Measuring the Impact of the Reuse Industry

We need to measure the size and impact of the Building Materials Reuse Industry in an organized way.
The editorial this month was going to be on wood as an important material in the building salvage industry in the United States. Indeed, wood is one of the materials most recovered from buildings. Whole businesses are dedicated to reclaimed wood from large timbers used as structural elements in large old buildings. Most general building salvage operations have a significant amount of lumber, but they also carry a lot of other items that are made out of wood or wood products. Cabinets, doors, flooring, trim, paneling, even some higher end windows have a lot of wood, and usually the wood is in a form that cannot be recycled — which makes reuse the best option. But how much wood reuse is going on? How much of salvaged material is wood or a wood product such as MDF or particle board? How many businesses are actively salvaging wood or selling reusable building materials? How does the practice of salvage and reuse of wood and wood products vary from region to region?

Hoping to present some reliable, up-to-date statistics quantifying reuse of wood and other building materials in the United States, I found some hard work and frustration. The best resources focused on wood recycling and reuse I found at a national level after a brief search were:

Generation and Recovery of Solid Wood Waste in the U.S. by Bob Falk and David McKeever of the Forest Products Laboratory in 2012

The Current State of Wood Reuse and Recycling in North America and Recommendations for Improvements from Dovetail Partners in 2013

Both of these are solidly researched information resources and a great starting point. However, if the goal is to answer some of the questions posed above, these will not get us very far. For one thing, much of the quantitative characterization of wood reuse and recycling for recent years relies on projections from earlier data going back to the 1990s and early 2000s, based on changes in economic and building industry data. Given how much the deconstruction and reuse markets are changing every year, one wonders how reliable a picture these numbers provide. We need ongoing data collection that is consistent in order to form a clear idea of how the reuse industry is growing and changing, and what its economic and environmental impacts are.

There are other sources to pursue to develop a picture of wood reuse. At the state level, solid waste plans may provide useful data. For example, Washington State has begun tracking recycling and reuse of specific materials as described in “Solid Waste in Washington State; 23rd Annual Status Report”. Here we discover that C&D diversion/recycling as measured in the state has increased 27% in the last three years, which seems like a believable and interesting trend. Reported C&D reuse in the state varies erratically from 2010-2013 with 350% variation in numbers. This suggests that either a few large projects have an outsized impact on reuse rates, or the methodology is not consistently capturing all C&D reuse activity. Even with the variability in the numbers, it is clear that reuse comprises only a tiny fraction (1-2%) of overall diversion by weight. The effort to measure and report not only diversion of C&D materials but also reuse of C&D materials at the state level should be applauded, supported and extended.

There has been some excellent work on environmental impacts of material reuse. A prime example is the work on lifecycle impacts of using reclaimed lumber and wood flooring in construction by Bergman, et al. Learn more here. This carefully researched study demonstrates that the environmental impact of reusing wood is considerably larger than a simple “tons diverted” number might suggest: energy used in reuse is less than a tenth of that of using virgin products, while global warming potential from reuse is 20-33% of that from use of virgin products. It would be great to see this kind of work for any number of other building materials and fixtures.

While there are a number of good methodologies and proof of concept studies, what the Building Materials Reuse Industry lacks is consistent, reliable data over time that show clearly how the industry is growing, changing and impacting the economy and environment. There are likely many studies and data that I am not aware of. In any case, I hope that at DECON ’16 and beyond, researchers and industry participants can work toward more robust data collection and reporting on deconstruction and building materials reuse. That is something that could really help this industry move forward.

If you resonate with this idea at the level of wanting to do something about it, I invite you to consider joining the Market Survey Working Group. You can apply here.

Bob Falk and David McKeever, Generation and Recovery of Solid Wood Waste in the U.S., Biocycle, August 2012, pp 30-32.

Jeff Howe, Steve Bratkovich, Jim Bowyer, Matt Frank, Kathryn Fernholz, “The Current State of Wood Reuse and Recycling in North America and Recommendations for Improvements”, Dovetail Partners, May 2013. Downloaded 3 November 2015:

“Solid Waste in Washington State: 23rd Annual Status Report,” Waste 2 Resources Program, December 2014, Publication #14-07-035

Richard D. Bergman, Hongmei Gu, Robert H. Falk, Thomas Napier, “Using Reclaimed Lumber and Wood Flooring in Construction: Measuring Environmental Impact using Lifecycle Inventory Analysis,” Proceedings of the International Convention of Society of Wood Science and Technology and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe – Timber Committee, October 11-14, 2010, Geneva Switzerland.