Waste Stream: The Deconstructionists
In a Portland, Oregon, suburb, the six-man crew of DeConstruction, Inc., enters a three-bedroom house and, with hammers and crowbars, starts tearing the place apart. The cabinets and carpet are first to go. Then the doors are unhinged and the hardwood floors pulled up. Over the next week, the whole structure, windows to light fixtures to lumber, will be hauled out onto the lawn, sorted, and stacked. But unlike the wreckage generated by 95 percent of demolition jobs across the country, this stuff isn’t headed for the landfill. It will be resold at a discount rate, making a profit for the company and contributing almost nothing to the estimated 65 million tons of waste that traditional U.S. demolition companies send to the dump every year.
“We give everything a chance,” says Brian McVay, a DeConstruction manager. “We harvest as much as possible, from the fireplace mantel to the foundation rock.” All of this ends up at a local resale yard, where buyers looking for a deal can find straight two-by-fours for 25 cents, or antique claw-foot bathtubs for about $300 — 50 to 90 percent cheaper than new ones.
DeConstruction, which started in 1999, is one of just eight companies in the United States whose sole service is environmentally sound demolition. But business is booming. So far, the company has completed 350 projects, and its workload has nearly doubled every year. Part of that success is pure price competitiveness. Because deconstruction companies resell the materials, rely less on costly machinery, and avoid disposal expenses, they can often outbid traditional demolishers; even when they can’t, many customers are willing to pay a bit more. “People often call us because they’re well aware that materials like redwood are going to the landfill, never to be seen again,” says Joel Fox of Beyond Waste, Inc., a company based near San Francisco.
Jim Primdahl of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that helps people start environmentally sound businesses, says that a trained crew can recover as much as 85 percent of a single-family house. About the only items that can’t be reused are materials containing hazardous asbestos, and certain plastics and plasters.
Recycling skeptics usually greet new programs with dark hints that the market isn’t there, and deconstruction is no exception. Will Turley, director of Construction Building Materials, asks, “Who wants to buy a twenty-year-old toilet from public housing?”
But DeConstruction is having no problem unloading its wares. As natural resources dwindle, prices for some virgin materials have skyrocketed — so much so that DeConstruction has sold items such as old Douglas fir flooring even before they were unloaded from the company truck. “I’m always walking through these resale yards thinking no one in the world is going to buy this or that,” Primdahl says. “But the next day someone is loading that item into his car with a smile on his face that says he just found the treasure of a lifetime for a couple bucks. It’s wonderful.”
Carolyn Szczepanski OnEarth. Fall 2002 Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council