With New York City in a constant state of renovation and rebuilding, the amount of construction and demolition waste produced each day tips the scales at 13,500 tons, according to the Department of Sanitation. Upon inspection, it is clear that much of that detritus is reusable, including perfectly good doors, cabinetry, windows and sinks. In an effort to keep these items out of landfills, two groups are working to interest do-it-yourselfers, builders and renovators of all kinds in second-hand procurement.
Build It Green!, located in an Astoria warehouse, is currently New York City’s only nonprofit surplus resale center open to the public. “Construction and demolition waste is a problem that we should be concerned about as a city,” says BIG cofounder Justin Green. Inside its warehouse walls one will find a vast assemblage of slightly used to brand new material, some of it collected from gutted buildings renovated as little as five years ago. “We think of ourselves as the first step in ‘green building’ – handling your waste in a responsible manner,” says Green.
To add to the inventory, Green is expecting a sizable salvage donation from the gutting of a 40-unit apartment building this fall. Most construction and demolition companies are happy to donate reusable material to BIG, Green says, because hauling it to Astoria is cheaper than the otherwise inevitable trip to out-of-state landfills. Fresh Kills Landfill, New York City’s last remaining landfill, received its final barge of garbage in March of 2001.
According to the New York state chapter of Associated General Contractors, the recycling of building construction waste is determined by each individual contractor. Green notes that New York construction and demolition recycling laws are not as progressive as they are in states such as Colorado and California, where waste management is more closely monitored and reuse centers are thriving.
At BIG, after nearly a year and a half of operation and after diverting more than 200 tons of demolition construction waste, business is slow. Castoff materials aren’t the “sexiest” form of recycling in a time when “green building” is still a fringe, almost trendy, choice for New Yorkers, Green says. A countertop made from recycled red wine bottles, for example, provides a better story than just reusing an old countertop. For most of BIG’s customers, saving the environment is the last thing on their minds. “People come here because we’re affordable, not because we’re green,” he said. BIG’s prices are 30 to 70 percent below typical hardware store prices.
BIG hopes to increase its visibility in the nonprofit community, enticing start-up organizations to use them as their supplier. Down the block in this Astoria industrial park is a United Way Gifts In Kind. It sells used office furniture, and its proximity to BIG provides a one-stop supply opportunity for organizations trying to get off the ground for less. “The nonprofit community could really benefit by all the stuff we have here,” says Green.
Near Hunts Point, a similar seed is being planted by Green Worker Cooperatives, an organization dedicated to bringing environmentally friendly businesses to the South Bronx. The city’s construction and demolition waste has a major effect on this neighborhood, because 22 percent of it ends up filling five of Hunts Point’s 10 transfer stations — parking lots loaded with tractor trailers that haul waste off to various landfills. Green Worker Executive Director Omar Freilla hopes to not only lower waste totals, but also decrease neighborhood truck traffic and air pollution by opening a reuse center similar to BIG next summer. “Diverting material creates a much friendlier environment,” Freilla says. “Every aspect of a reuse center is to [improve] the community. No more huge tractor trailers moving things in and out.”
Freilla is engaging the community in his mission, and last week held the first of a seven-part training session to inform those interested in the reuse center and green business. Citizens noted several reasons for their participation, including concerns over truck exhaust contributing to their children’s asthma, hopeful thoughts of revitalizing the neighborhood, and lifting its negative label as “the burnt-out Bronx.”
“It’s important to recognize that Manhattan handles zero construction and demolition debris,” Freilla said. He thinks New Yorkers are actually quite interested in reused materials. “The rise of eBay, craigslist, and dumpster diving are just some of the signs that plenty of New Yorkers readily embrace new (and old) ways to save money,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Reuse centers provide the kind of infrastructure this city needs in order to move beyond an occasional listing for a set of kitchen cabinets or a door on craigslist.”
Although a good bargain is always an enticing incentive, the greater goal of these organizations is a cleaner environment. “There’s a push for more reuse recycling on demolition jobs,” says Freilla, “but without a place to take all that stuff the only option is the current one – the nearest landfill.”