Ethan Landis doesn't like to see good materials end up in the Dumpster. He knows that diverting material from the landfill, by reusing or recycling, saves natural resources. It saves him money to boot — less waste means fewer trips to the landfill and possibly a smaller Dumpster on site. And besides, he prides himself on the green remodeling work of his design/build company, Landis Construction, in Washington, D.C.

After a recent demolition, though, the remodeler found himself with huge steel girders and other scrap metal that he knew he had no use for. He called 20 different people to offer it for free, before he found someone willing to salvage it.

“This guy spent a lot of time cutting it up and loading it into two pickup trucks,” says Landis, “and then he probably spent $40 on gas driving back and forth, not to mention the cost of the wear and tear on his trucks. In the end, I don't think it was even worth his time. If I had to do it again, I wouldn't.”

David Bennick, who is on the board of the Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA),, says that what Landis feels is typical. “I've talked to thousands of contractors — and these aren't tree-hugging environmentalists — and by far the majority of them say,‘I hate to see that stuff go to the landfill.'”

But they also haven't questioned throwing it away, Bennick says, because that's just what people do, unless landfill restrictions stop them. It's usually a question of time: Remodelers have to get old materials off a site fast, so they can put a house back together again.

The result? The EPA reports that in the U.S., construction and demolition waste amounts to roughly 164 million tons annually, of which 38% is renovation waste, and 53% is demolition debris.

REUSE, RECYCLE You can reuse or recycle almost everything on a remodel, with thoughtful planning and design up front, according to Carl Seville. He now runs Seville Consulting, but for 25 years he was vice president at SawHorse, a design/build and green construction company in Atlanta. Seville just finished a new showcase home for EarthCraft, a green renovation program based in Atlanta.

By scrutinizing the showcase-home project as a whole from the get-go, he was able to take advantage of more recycling opportunities. Says Seville, “Wood was donated for other structures; brick and stone were given to a renovation nearby; scrap wood was ground into mulch to protect the jobsite; concrete was hauled to serve as fill and erosion control, or ground up and recycled; a craftsperson came and took the window sashes; a contractor took the salvaged doors; cabinets were donated to a local nonprofit; and scrap tiles were ground into gravel.”

Other remodelers are finding that old flooring, decorative trim, and beams are in high demand across the country. On a recent remodel in Portland, for example, Green Hammer Construction reused much of the lumber removed during deconstruction for interior finishes, while the wood cabinets were all salvaged from another remodel up the street.

CHALLENGES In average markets across the country, though, remodelers run into a threefold problem: One, remodelers may not know how to remove materials without damaging them. Two, doing so might take more time than they have. And even if they do manage to pull off one and two, they still may not have anywhere to take the recycled materials.

Bennick owns Re-Use Consulting, in Bellingham, Wash., and works with remodelers to address these very challenges.

On one recent project, a condominium remodeler needed Bennick's help with 1,400 vinyl windows. “Before I came along they were breaking most of the windows as they removed them, and trying to give the intact ones away to neighbors. But these guys had 1,400 windows!” Bennick first showed them how to quickly remove the windows without damaging them, then found buyers. “I'm on my way to making the remodeling contractor $23,000, instead of him accumulating $2,000 or $3,000 in dump fees.”

This year, more opportunities are springing up for contractors to learn about deconstruction and recycling. The BMRA will offer two full-day training workshops at its conference this May. One workshop gives BMRA accreditation in building deconstruction; the other shows contractors how to set up a comprehensive recycling program for construction and demolition debris.

On a local level, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry will soon begin a pilot program to train contractors on limiting the amount of waste they put in landfills. The program was developed by Seville.

DECONSTRUCTION DESTINATION As for finding a place to take recyclable material, such as Landis' steel girders, the Web is perhaps the best guide for now.

The U.S. General Services Administration publishes a list of companies that recycle construction and demolition waste. Remodelers may search the site ( by region and material, as well as by whether the company picks up waste or simply accepts it. On Habitat for Humanity's Web site ( is a list of their ReStores, 450 of them in the U.S. And BMRA's Web site ( lists 1,300 businesses across the country where you can buy or donate reusable building materials.

As more recyclable material enters the stream, and the market for them grows, it's likely that more businesses will spring up to make reusing and recycling easier. In the meantime, a lot rests on remodelers' willingness to do the right thing, even though it's not always easy. “For now, it's just a matter of feeling good,” Landis says. “But there really needs to be a better market mechanism for getting salvaged material into the recycling chain,” he says, “because right now it's a cumbersome chain.”

Source: Environmental Protection Agency, 2003

Alice Bumgarner is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. When she's not covering the remodeling industry, she writes about food, travel, and parenting. Her work has been published in Salon, Sky, and Town & Country magazines, among others.