As W.B. Yeats could have put it, ours is no country for old buildings. Each year, countless aging and outdated structures are dispatched by our $4 billion demolition industry. Even the recent economic retrenchment has hardly altered the nation’s out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mind-set. In 2010 alone, an estimated 104 million tons of materials flowed in from project sites all over the country, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the U.S.’s annual solid-waste stream. The garbage comprises not only rubble and rotting beams, but also countless odds and ends from new construction such as cast-off nails and packaging. So whether they’re putting something up or taking something down, architects are indirectly making a mess.
What happens to buildings that we’ve replaced? The general procedure for clearing a site has remained more or less consistent for decades: Client contracts with architect, architect contracts with general contractor, who hires a demolition firm that turns refuse over to hauling company, and hauling company drops it off at the dump. Salvageable building parts, such as floorboards, tile, and windows, that could be pulled from the wreckage are often not, since few people know who might buy them and for how much, or where to stow them in the meantime. Likewise, taking the recycling route—in which materials are broken down into their constituent parts, reprocessed, and resold as new and, most likely, different products—could introduce a swarm of logistical challenges that builders have little incentive to pursue, particularly with so many cheap landfills nearby. As a result, with the exception of scrap metal, structural materials such as concrete (which can be recycled) often end up in the trash as well.
A Rebirth in Recycling
We are moving away from the status quo of how we handle our construction and demolition waste for many reasons. Dumping has become more expensive and thus less appealing for contractors and clients, says William Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA), a national umbrella organization based in Eola, Ill., that represents 245 waste-management companies that give a second life to concrete, wood, and steel. Compared to Europe, which recycles an estimated 46 percent of its construction and demolition waste, the U.S. recycles at a rate of 30 percent. “Landfill prices [here] are still very low, but they’re getting higher,” Turley says.