Smarter Living: Yard & Garden

wood pile

Photo: Vincent Standley

Old houses are often treasure troves of lumber that is both stronger and more beautiful than what's milled today. But once it's been crushed and packed into a dump truck, long boards and timbers are rendered less reusable. Taken away and dumped as construction and demolition (C&D) waste, recovery becomes even less likely. The old wood and house debris joins other construction waste like drywall, roofing, paint buckets, Tyvec, concrete, countertops, plastic tarps and wood from a wide range of applications. At this point, those first-growth Douglas fir 2x4s and clapboard have been swallowed whole.

In fact, each year wood equivalent to 250,000 single-family homes is incinerated or buried in landfills. The USDA estimates that from an annual total of 70 million tons of wood waste, 30 million tons were of a quality to be reused. In 2007, nearly 10 percent of the wood processed as municipal solid waste (MSW) was diverted from landfills. However, pallets accounted for most of the material, and these were refurbished, turned into shavings for mulch and livestock bedding, and burned for energy.

Most construction-grade wood is found in the C&D waste stream, not in municipal waste. The waste from new home construction is estimated to be around 10 percent of this stream, adding up to over 4 million tons of wood waste annually, with over 80 percent eligible for recovery. Yet the likelihood that it will be recovered is slim. Glass, plastic, paper and metal recycling are institutionalized and largely occur prior to disposal. Without a similar mechanism in place, collecting wood waste (for reuse not just for recycling into other products) remains inefficient and haphazard.

Demolition produces more wood waste than either construction or MSW. It is more difficult to recover but also offers a greater reward. One good sign is that growth in the reclaimed lumber market—for example, via Rainforest Alliance SmartWood certifcation program—is beginning to impact the way old houses are demolished. Where efficacy is conventionally measured by speed, there is a growing awareness that if a house is broken down piece by piece, rather than by a wrecking ball or bulldozer, the value of the wood is preserved and can not only be reused but can be sold to a growing clientele.

Currently, the preservation of old wood is dependent on its being noticed before demolition or being salvaged post-disposal. Neither offers much assurance or accountability. While entrepreneurs are bringing old lumber into a very specialized market, the enormous overhead of salvaging makes cheap reclaimed lumber difficult to find—unless you luck into the right demolition job. Would this still be the case if the usable 30 million tons of wood were sorted out before being tossed in a landfill? Until we give lumber the same consideration as pop cans and newspapers, we won’t know the answer.

What you can do

Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program certifies reclaimed wood and wood collected from underwater salvage operations. You can find SmartWood certified products listed at Rainforest Alliance's website.

Although it is several years old now, the USDA Forest Products Laboratory's Directory of Wood Frame Building Deconstruction and Reused Building Materials Companies, 2005 is still a useful, comprehensive resource.

Photo credit: Vincent Standley

Learn More

How to Build a Compost Bin (From Reclaimed Wood)

Wood Labels

last revised 1/26/2012

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