Building material salvage/reuse advances substantial economic and social benefits

A 2003 EPA study* revealed that over 170 million tons of building materials are thrown away each year across the U.S., and a large percentage of these materials are reusable. We’re talking about 26.3 billion cubic feet of stuff; to put this in perspective, imagine filling every cubic foot of the Empire State Building with building materials and then sending it all to the landfill. Then imagine this happening 710 times every year. That is the scope of what we’re throwing away.

The environmental impact of taking this “business as usual” approach is profound.  In addition to reducing available landfill capacity, using new materials in lieu of reclaimed components requires the extraction of virgin resources, energy/water-intensive manufacturing processes, and often transportation across long distances, which results in increased GHG emissions.

To make things worse, each time we discard materials that can be reused, we miss out on the substantial economic and social benefits associated with incorporating these materials into construction projects. For example, in 2010, the architecture firm Perkins+Will salvaged 62 tons of material from their Atlanta office renovation and donated these materials to 19 local organizations, including 11 nonprofits. The 37 tons given to nonprofits was valued at $384,000. The EPA estimates that 300,000 buildings are demolished in the U.S. each year and most reuse operations sell reclaimed materials for 50 percent less than new materials; if each demolition was evaluated as an opportunity for material salvage/reuse, the available savings through discounted building materials would be astronomical. Building deconstruction also has the potential to generate up to eight times as many jobs as traditional demolition.

So why hasn’t building material salvage/reuse become the norm nationally?

1. Lack of infrastructure:

It takes a lot of manpower, equipment and physical space to manage large volumes of material. Reuse operations come in a myriad of types; some for-profit, some non-profit, some engage in full structural disassembly, while others focus solely on removing finish materials. Reuse centers operating in new or developing markets are typically non-profits, which often take longer to grow operationally.

2. Lack of expertise:

Taking apart buildings effectively requires a unique set of skills and a lot of hands-on training. Deconstruction training programs tend to be available within regions which already have a strong reuse market and are less likely to be available in areas where reuse is just gaining a foothold.

3. Variations in material value:

Standard construction practices and common material types vary regionally, which can greatly impact the overall material value available from deconstruction projects.  

4. Lack of incentives:

Some municipalities offer disposal discounts, expedited permitting, free consulting and other incentives to projects which prioritize material salvage and reuse, but they are still by far in the minority. Mandating minimum material reclamation requirements has also been effective in some areas, but this approach tends to be more successful in larger cities seeking to attract high-profile corporations through sustainable development projects.

5. Cheap disposal:

Nationally, there is wide disparity with regard to disposal costs for construction and demolition (C&D) materials. To put it simply, the cheaper it is to throw away C&D materials, the less likely it is for material salvage and reuse to be prioritized. The West Coast, Northeast and parts of the Midwest currently have the highest disposal costs (and the most robust reuse climate), while tipping fees in the Southern and Central parts of the U.S. are generally very low, resulting in fewer material reuse operations.

6. Education gap:

Since most consumers are generally not accustomed to working with reclaimed materials, more support is sometimes needed during implementation. Increased awareness with regard to the economic, social and environmental benefits associated with material reuse will also help consumers take a more holistic approach when evaluating material options.


7.    Waste perception barrier:

There is also a huge perception barrier when dealing with commodities that have been labeled as “waste.” Anything defined as waste is usually perceived as undesirable and something to be avoided.

Designers hold a unique position within the building industry relative to material reuse. For renovation projects or circumstances where existing buildings will be removed to make way for new construction, early engagement with building owners enables designers to emphasize salvage opportunities far in advance of demolition. Setting aggressive salvage/reuse goals and establishing protocols as early as possible results in much higher rates of material reclamation.


Beyond preventing the destruction of reusable components, designers also have the ability to reveal the latent potential within captured materials through creative reuse. By using an imaginative approach which often creates unexpected transformations, the design team can generate innovative solutions which resonate much more deeply with their clientele than traditional material selection processes.

With this in mind, here are ways that the design industry can support building material reuse:

1. Tell a better story:

Create a more meaningful experience for the end user/client and for the project team by sharing the history of how installed reclaimed materials were originally used, documenting the refurbishment process and presenting the triple bottom line benefits associated with reuse.

2. Design for disassembly:

Make the design process an opportunity to facilitate future material recovery. Segregate durable and non-durable materials, consolidate MEP systems, minimize interior structural components and incorporate mechanical attachment methods in lieu of adhesives.

3. Demonstrate material value:

Inspire clients and project teams to discover the value in salvaged materials by incorporating them into the design workplace environment.

4. Product innovation:

Encourage product manufacturers to develop assemblies which allow for future separation of dissimilar materials.

5. Require/Incentivize material salvage:

Include minimum requirements and incentives for material salvage within project specifications and require a robust Construction Waste Management plan which clearly delineates the overall process.

6. Specify reclaimed materials:

Encourage project teams to engage with local sources for salvaged materials, establish procurement processes and develop specification language which minimizes virgin material substitutions.

7. Celebrate success:

Document successful material reuse projects, share tactics through industry-related forums and inspire others to adopt a more resource-efficient approach.

8. Policy incentive advocacy:

Ask government representatives at the local, state and federal level to establish incentives for building projects which avoid the disposal of reusable materials or successfully incorporate salvaged components.

9. Support local reuse:

Learn more about the groups who are working to support salvage/reuse in your community and get involved. Volunteer, use reclaimed materials and spread the word!

* Source:

In June of 2012, Shannon Goodman joined the Lifecycle Building Center (LBC) as Executive Director, previously serving as the LBC Board Chair. Prior to helping form the LBC, Shannon Goodman spent 13 years working as an architect for several Atlanta firms, including Perkins+Will.