Home Repo

In 2003, builders in california started 191,866 new homes and apartment units—the most housing starts since 1989 and the most apartment units since 1990. According to state and federal EPA estimates, every one of those houses created between 7,000 and 10,000 pounds of waste—lumber off-cuts, drywall scraps, cardboard, and all the other detritus of a busy construction site. That garbage, along with the leavings of commercial building, amounts to nearly 9 million tons of construction waste every year.
At Beyond Waste, a Sonoma County deconstruction and flooring operation, Pavitra Krimmel and her crew have  attacked the problem head-on: to get recycled lumber for their flooring and other projects, they’ve actually taken to disassembling buildings themselves when developers intend to tear them down. “We realized that the only way to get usable lumber was to take buildings apart ourselves,” she says. “As if we knew how to do that.”
But they’ve learned: Their biggest projects have been large warehouses and other buildings on local decommissioned military bases going out of service. The wood from these buildings is irreplaceable—tight-grained old-growth fir and redwood. “There are only a finite number [of these  old buildings], and when the wood is gone, it’s gone, so all the ones that are coming down should be recycled,”  Krimmel says.
Krimmel uses the wood for finished wood flooring and furniture. “What I really wanted was for people to see how beautiful this wood is,” she explains. “Part of the issue with stuff that gets thrown away is what people value. Garbage is basically what people don’t value. What we’re trying to do is to change the value of old wood.”
Changing the value of waste is the life’s work of Dan Knapp, the sociologist who founded Urban Ore, Berkeley’s landmark building reuse center. In fact, he doesn’t call it waste; he calls it the “discard supply.” Knapp’s discard supply has become a treasure trove of doors, plumbing fixtures, appliances, and a thousand other things useful to contractors and homeowners. “We have tons of contractors who come to us,” Knapp says. “They’re saving on dump fees, and they like our policy of trade credits. We’re like their garage. They bring it to us, because we organize it. We have a base of about 4,000 doors that we’ve accumulated.”
Urban Ore is a prime example of reuse—goods like bathtubs and doors are sold and reused in a new house. But cleaning and sorting those things takes time. “Everything we do is labor-intensive. Reuse is the most job-intensive; it provides the most jobs by far of anything else in the recycling sector,” Knapp says. Which means reuse has its limitations—some things simply aren’t worth reusing.
At Counter-Productions in West Berkeley, Don McPherson takes a step to reclaim what most would consider beyond reuse. He uses all kinds of waste glass to make custom countertops that compare well to granite or travertine. “I wanted to come up with a method for recycling glass that used as little energy as possible, and that meant no melting down,” he says. And he wanted his countertops to be recyclable in turn, so they contain no plastic resins.
The material’s main ingredient is any discarded glass McPherson and his crew can get their hands on—about 80 percent of it local. Crushed glass from curbside bins, glassware factories, old traffic lights, wine bottles—bags and bags of it sit outside McPherson’s shop. Inside, highly polished samples line the small showroom, and McPherson can describe the contents of each mix.
McPherson’s techniques are innovative, but when it comes to simply making use of salvaged goods, there’s little that’s new about efforts like this—except how they’ve grown. In 1999 and 2000, cities across California faced a state law requiring diversion of 50 percent or more of their solid waste from landfills. The Alameda County Waste Management Authority did a study of the 1.7 million tons of garbage landfilled in 2000 and found that fully 21 percent of it was debris from construction and demolition. That amounted to some 375,000 tons of wood, plaster, drywall, concrete, and other detritus.
Fast-growing cities like Dublin had an even bigger problem. As much as 50 percent of their landfilled waste came from commercial and residential construction gone gangbusters in the boom years of the ’90s. A lot has happened since: of the 17 municipal and county governments and waste agencies that make up the waste management board, 10 now have ordinances requiring contractors on projects to submit recycling plans from construction projects that meet thresholds on square footage or tonnage of  debris. Although accurate county-wide recycling rates for this material won’t be available until the next waste audit in 2005, city officials have seen progress.
The city of Dublin led the way when it adopted a construction recycling ordinance as an emergency measure in 2000. “Even though they’re still growing at about 10 percent a year, the amount of material landfilled has gone down. It is working,” says Wendy Sommer, who wrote the waste management authority’s model ordinance  in 1999.
Dublin’s law requires a waste management plan for any project over $100,000, and for anything over $1 million, the developer must purchase a bond refundable when the city checks all recycling receipts. That gives the law some teeth. “I check their numbers and make sure that they meet our criteria,” explains Dublin’s senior building inspector Mike Baker. “We want to see that, out of all the waste you created, 50 percent of that went to a recycler.”
Where does the recycled material go if places like Urban Ore won’t take it?
Some of it just gets composted at facilities like the Zanker Road Landfill in San Jose. Lumber and drywall or gypsum board (made of calcium carbonate and paper) break down, which keeps both out of the landfill but does nothing to stem new logging and gypsum mining. “I do not believe that most of the material in the US is going back into houses,” says Barbara Van Gee, with the California Integrated Waste Management Board. “It’s probably being used at a lower level, being chipped into mulch.”
Concrete, on the other hand, can get crushed into aggregate for new concrete. Sommer estimates that over 80 percent of concrete is crushed and then used for new concrete. The Green Resource Center in downtown Berkeley is a hive of information about things like high fly-ash concrete, which is made with waste from coal-fired power plants. High fly-ash concrete is one of the most important recycled materials that can go into a house, according to program manager Ed Gulick. The ash, 70 percent of which now goes to landfills, can replace up to half of the cement base in concrete. And cement manufacture is responsible for about 6 to 8 percent of total global carbon dioxide emissions. “If you use fly ash to reduce cement, it’s like taking cars off the road,” Gulick says.
Closing the loop on wood and other construction materials is more difficult. Nevertheless, in a West Oakland no-man’s land between the freeways and the Army base, next to a concrete crusher, sits one of many small efforts to stem that tide. It’s a veritable forest of Douglas fir, eucalyptus, redwood, and other trees. The East Bay Conservation Corps’ tree recycling yard takes downed trees from all over the Bay Area and turns them into flooring, siding, decking, and other finished wood products. Many of the downed trees come from cleared construction sites, and, when milled into lumber, all of them reduce the import of new lumber that would itself someday end up in a landfill.
Though in sight of Oakland’s 580-880 freeway maze, the yard is off the grid—its workers drink from water jugs, and hot links sizzle on a grate over a wood fire in a barrel. Longtime logger and mill operator Greg Siragusa drives his logging truck all over the Bay Area. The day I visited, Siragusa came in with a load of  Monterey pine logs from a site in Bolinas. “What we do here is landfill diversion,” Siragusa says. “What people come here to buy is something special.”
Without a yard like this, felled urban and suburban trees would go to the dump, with no chance to displace some of the need for commercial timber. The yard is an informal affair—its only real  off-the-shelf product is handsome eucalyptus flooring— but homeowners with trees to take out can call yard manager Paul Maheu to get full use of their lumber. “Ideally we’d like to take a tree out of someone’s yard, bring it here, mill it, and take it back to the same house so they can use it for a deck or something,” Maheu says. The yard also works with high-end architects looking for unusual lumber. Siragusa showed me an 1,800-pound block of pine destined for rustic benches in Levi Strauss’s headquarters.
Finding contractors who are receptive to and knowledgeable about reused lumber or glass countertops is not easy. But that may change, thanks to a new certification offered by the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, which will be posting a list of certified green contractors on its website. “It’s really refreshing to go to a class like this and discuss all this,” says Berkeley contractor David Grubb, who is coordinating the program. “We used to be on our own trying to figure these things out.”
But the small scale of such programs can be discouraging. The building group lists just 44 certified green contractors on its web site—not many compared to the estimated 11,000 housing units going up in Alameda and Contra Costa counties alone through in the first 10 months of 2003. Francisco Gutterres, a construction recycling specialist with the state waste board, sees very few big builders  concentrating on using recycled materials in new construction. “Builders’ practices change rather slowly because of liability issues,” he explains. “A lot of time, you see builders using practices that their fathers used or that their grandfathers used, because that’s what they’re used to.”

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