What’s Missing from our Recycling Conversations?

By Daniel Salmon

There’s a part of our waste stream we’re not addressing. In the midst of trash heaps throughout Utah are tons and tons of waste generated from construction and demolition (C&D) practices. These two sources account for nearly 25% of all waste in Utah, yet only achieve a recycling rate of 2%. Clearly, more can be done, but tackling this goliath is different. C&D isn’t ubiquitous like municipal solid waste (MSW), and most of us don’t directly handle the waste from these industries. What this means is a different approach is required targeting specific elements responsible for the waste generation.

One approach that is effective and viable is building deconstruction. This responsible alternative to traditional demolition is the reverse of construction: dismantling unwanted buildings to reclaim materials for reuse and recycling, landfilling what is left. Remodels and removals are a large source of C&D waste. For example, a typical house comprises nearly 80 tons of materials, the equivalent of 100 people’s yearly waste. Deconstructing means up to 85% of these materials (68 tons) can be reused or recycled instead of landfilled. Beyond the substantial waste diversion achieved, deconstruction is a truly sustainable endeavor – economically, socially, and environmentally. Let’s look at each of these facets in turn.

Deconstruction yields tons of reusable, valuable materials, from small remodels up to entire structures. Reclaimed materials are typically donated to a non-profit organization – like the Reuse People of America – resulting in a large tax deduction for property owners, and major project savings compared to demolition. Materials are made available to the public, often at deep discounts compared to similar, new materials. Low-income, fixed-budget and frugal buyers can maintain or improve their standards of living, while freeing up funds to save or spend on other basic needs. The life of landfills is extended, delaying the need to raise tipping fees, or dig costly new holes. Finally, deconstruction is labor-intensive which means more people are employed for longer. This is a far greater economic driver than mechanized demolition and provides critical job training that is applicable to other building trades.

Deconstruction also addresses a component of the homeless issue Salt Lake County struggles with: the lack of affordable housing and the high cost of home repairs. Universal, affordable, reclaimed materials can help bridge the cost-gap for our most economically vulnerable neighbors and restore people on a path to economic mobility. Requiring responsible demolition practices and supporting the use of reclaimed materials in housing developments lowers costs and directly assists those who need help most. Filling our landfills with good materials is expedient for the short-term economic interests of the privileged few, but it pushes the economic and societal costs of wastefulness onto future generations. Just as organizations like Deseret Industries and the Salvation Army connect the needy to the discarded excesses of the well-off, building material thrift stores connect struggling homeowners with resources from discarded homes.

Reusing materials is inherently better for our planet. Saving them from a long life of decay in the landfill reduces unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Reuse also lowers our reliance on precious natural resources like forests and mines by extending the utility of already extracted materials. Deconstruction reduces the burning of fossil fuels needed to extract, process and transport virgin building materials that could be readily available if demolition was handled more responsibly. Ultimately, our landfills are extended, too, minimizing the need to damage existing habitats in the search of more land to bury more stuff. 

It should be clear that a lot is missing from our conversations about recycling. What will it take to broaden the conversation? Awareness of Utah’s “hidden” waste drivers is the foremost issue. Education about our entire waste landscape, and the robust solutions that target them, is critical. Greater recycling won’t become standard practice unless we educate our communities and ourselves. Seeing buildings as resource “banks” rather than property means stewardship and responsible solutions, rather than wasteful elimination. We must bring these conversations to the forefront of civic engagement, too. Talk to your council-person, mayor and city administrators to bring these issues to their attention. These officials directly guide development and can identify pathways for greater stewardship and responsibility. Ask what they will do to minimize these buried opportunities and raise diversion requirements. Finally, be an ambassador-of-one. In your conversations with family, friends and colleagues discuss the benefits and principles of deconstruction. Most people are thrilled to learn they can save money, help their community and the planet, by donating, rather than destroying, their unwanted kitchens, houses and buildings. Ultimately, we are responsible for advocating what is in the best interests of our society, both today and in the future.

Learn more about Salt Lake City’s commitment to reducing construction and demolition waste here

Daniel Salmon is the former board president of the Utah Recycling Alliance and owner/founder of Material Resourcers, a waste reclamation company focused on industrial byproducts and responsible demolition. He holds a B.A. in Communications from the University of Colorado and a Masters of Public Administration in Sustainability Policy from the University of Utah.