Recently, I was talking to my mom on the phone, and she mentioned that my family was considering selling our suburban house and moving closer to the city. She then added that they weren’t completely sure if she was going to do it because if they did, our house would almost certainly get torn down. Our house would be nothing special to the housing market, but nevertheless, every part of my house has an intrinsic value that can’t be measured based on merely market values. So many aspects of my childhood would end up as waste: the walls of my room that were painted over countless times in order to find the perfect color, or the hardwood floors that got scratched when my little brother decided it would be a good idea to skateboard around the house, and much more. Then I realized that this happens daily: household items that acquire years of meaning are destined to lose all life in a landfill.
I never really thought of the amount of waste that comes from building and demolishing houses until after that phone conversation with my mom. I was surprised to find out that around 200-300 thousand houses are demolished each year in the United States, and they’re being replaced at an even faster rate in most areas. Up until somewhat recently, nearly all of the materials from a demolished house, such as wood, window glass, and household items are simply thrown away primarily because the costs of finding ways to refurbish the materials are substantially higher than simply throwing them away. In Seattle, about 25% of the waste shipped from trains to be brought to landfills come from the demolition of houses. In fact, there are many landfills across the United States exclusively dedicated to construction and demolition waste. At the same time that old house materials are being brought to landfills, new housing materials with generally unsustainable supply chains are being created for the construction of a new housing project. This linear system of production, consumption, and waste simply can’t work forever. Fortunately, over the past two decades, hundreds of companies have appeared that mediate the reuse of items that come from the demolition of houses.
When thinking about reusing items in an economic sense, it gets interesting because the consumers in the original supply chain of the good become the producers in an entirely new supply chain. Of course, the “producer” doesn’t actually produce the item, but rather just brings the item back into either an identical or similar market at a lower value. Reusing is a type of open loop system that usually requires the assistance of a third-party company that facilitates the collection of the items from the suppliers and the selling and distribution of the items from the demanders. This tends to be the primary issue when thinking about reusing because it can sometimes be hard to bring an equal ratio of producers and consumers together. Theoretically, the quantity supplied of the good is as many of the materials that can be salvaged for reuse, but the actual supply potential tends to be suppressed because there isn’t a perceived demand for the materials.
One company that successfully brings producers and consumers into a reusable item market together that stands out to me because it was one of the first of its kind is called Second Use. Located in Seattle, Washington and established in 1994, it salvages materials from demolished houses to be sold and reused for new construction projects. They solve the problem of bringing consumers and producers together through an effective amount of incentives. Obviously, the consumers of the reused materials benefit because they’re getting items at a lower price. According to the website, the materials are usually 40-60% of the price of the equivalent new items. In addition, using the materials bought from Second Use can help the project get credits for becoming LEED certified. Suppliers benefit from the reuse because instead of making no money disposing of the old materials, they are paid to give their items to Second Use. It is easy to qualitatively say that reusing is good for the environment, but it is much more effective to be able to see a quantitative effect. The Second Use website gives people the opportunity to see exactly how much they are benefitting the environment to see how many pounds of CO2 is averted from re-using common house materials with an Environmental Impact Calculator. For example, reusing a kitchen sink averts 216 lbs. of CO2, which is about as much CO2 emitted as driving an SUV for 150 miles.
Materials from house demolition and construction obviously aren’t the only opportunity to reuse. This waste usually doesn’t affect the average person’s life, but nevertheless, it is a huge contributor of waste. Fortunately, my family has yet to move, but if or when they do, I hope that the materials of my house find a second life.