Zero waste: betraying our mission?

This is a guest post by Dave Bennink, owner of Re-Use Consulting.

I recently was asked to speak at the California Resource Recovery Association Conference in Palm Springs.  I know, Palm Springs, it sounds like a vacation, but the high for each day was 112 degrees.  Anyway, this year’s theme was ‘zero-waste’.  The CRRA had asked me to discuss building deconstruction in the context of it helping to achieve zero waste goals in many California cities.  It caused me to pause and think about what zero waste means and how to achieve it.  I came up with a couple of interesting points.

Betraying the mission:

Some of the projects that I have been involved with or have read about that have strived for zero-waste or very high diversion rates may have succeeded in doing so, but at what cost?  It may have taken weeks to accomplish and cost much more than demolition.  Therefore, even though the project stands as an example of what is possible, the general public may see this as confirming their belief that building deconstruction (and perhaps other green building methods) cost too much and take too long

Looking at this another way, we see that the single project may divert 70 tons from the landfill during

Is this going to a site or from one?
its 3.6 week schedule.  A less agressive approach that we frequently follow would divert 60 tons in 1.2 weeks or 180 tons during the same 3.6 week schedule.  So, in the end, who is closer to zero-waste? 

There are different ways to achieve zero-waste, by achieving zero-waste on one project and building off of that and using it as a bar that others can reach, or to achieve high-diversion on 10 projects at a cost-competitive price and time-sensitive schedule.  In the end, we really do need the zero-waste projects to push us forward, we just need them to admit that we still have a ways to go before achieving zero-waste on a regular basis. 

Designing for disassembly:

When planning our presentation, we reviewed past projects that we had completed and sent the materials in three directions: reuse, recycling and disposal.  Our focus was on how we could have eliminated the disposal category on projects performed in the ‘real world’.  Our conclusion was that if we design waste into a structure, it is not surprising that we get waste out of projects. 

Designing for disassembly is a movement in architecture to admit that their structures will likely not live out their entire lifespan and that when the building is removed someday in the future, the materials that make up that structure will be worth harvesting and that the design should favor this disassembly.  The more fasteners, ADHESIVES, and other waste producing or labor consuming building systems that are battled when the building is taken apart, the more unlikely that deconstruction will be a viable choice for building removal. 

Having deconstructed 500 structures in the last 16 years, RE-USE Consulting has gained a unique perspective on this problem and is moving ahead with its own solutions to be applied to today’s buildings.  We hope that tomorrow’s buildings will be made of reusable panels that can be reused and are perhaps constructed on multiples of 16″ or 24″, floating floor panels, paneling set in channels with fewer fasteners, and well thought out use of adhesives.  

I have seen what zero waste looks like.  It is an amazing thing.  Imagine a job site where the building was removed and the stacks of materials sitting on the ground confuse the passer-by.  Is a building about to be built, or did it just come down? 

Should we focus first on zero-waste, or should we focus on increasing the percentage of materials that are diverted for reuse?  In the end, the reuse of materials can be many times better than simply recycling them due to the preservation of energy, job creation associated with it, and from resource conservation.