Parts is Parts

“We should design man-made objects and products in such a way that we’re not destroying the resources, but that we’re basically borrowing them for a certain amount of time … And that we can take them out in their pure form and put them back into the system.”

~ Professor Dirk Hebel, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Our recycling bin in the back alley sits next to our trash bin — both in a line with the neighbors’ bins — all waiting for their once weekly emptying. Further down the alley sits a large dumpster, placed for a building contractor’s waste from their house renovation job. It’s interesting to peek into the dumpster and see what is being trashed – conduit, wall board, lumber, tiles, broken appliances, and unrecognizable debris. (I have to use restraint to not ‘dumpster dive’ and haul off all the “good stuff” in there.)

The piddly little amount of home recycling we generate pales in comparison to the dumpster quantity, and I wonder why we don’t have a mechanism for recycling construction stuff. Writer Jessica Camille Aguirre reports, “Typically, the fate of a building that has outlasted its usefulness is demolition, leaving behind a huge pile of waste … Half of all waste in the Netherlands comes from construction and demolition.”

Edifices are supposed to embody progress. Each generation — in stone, steel, glass or concrete — makes its mark on the future … But buildings use a prodigious amount of raw materials and are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s climate emissions, half of which is generated by their construction. The production of cement is alone responsible for eight percent of global emissions.”

True, some building materials are recovered during renovation or demolition. Some materials may be ground up for aggregate in subsequent concrete construction, and wood waste can be burned to generate electricity. But there’s a problem, “… most of the recovered waste is downcycled — that is, crushed into roads or incinerated to produce energy. A 2020 report pointed out that only 3 to 4 percent of material in new Dutch construction was reused in its original form, which means that trees are still being cut for lumber and limestone still mined for cement.”

What if we took recycling seriously? Aguirre writes, “The ideal process for an old building would be to disassemble it and reuse its parts, … ‘That’s why we could turn the process around and get the elements out the same way,’ Dutch environmental engineer Michael Baars told me. ‘It’s like Legos.’”

My son and I played with Legos a lot when he was younger, and I found myself wishing that I’d had a Lego class in my civil engineering curriculum. Figuring out how to make it all fit together to produce some idea in your mind takes some ingenuity, but taking it all apart reveals the intricacy of the puzzle. And, of course, we never threw the used Legos away, we saved and reused them.

Aguirre wants us to take a longer view in our construction projects, … a set of ideas sometimes called the circular or regenerative economy, the cradle-to-cradle approach, or the doughnut economy. There are two main tenets to their thinking: First, on a planet with limited resources and a rapidly warming climate, it’s crazy to throw stuff away; second, products should be designed with reuse in mind … Translating either concept to the infrastructure of human settlements requires considering reuse in much longer time scales.

“Circularity emphasizes the composition of things, rather than their use, suggesting that anything made thoughtfully enough can endure infinitely or proffer its molecules for breakdown and reorganization. Waste need not exist, and creating a new kind of material bounty, its proponents suggest, is a matter of design.”

Although it’s not something I learned in school, experience has taught me that on any construction site, use of the term “doughnut economy” might inhibit worker production. I say go with “regenerative economy” instead.

“Parts is parts.”

                                                ~ 1980’s Wendy’s TV commercial

Additional information:

Jessica Camille Aguirre, How to Recycle a 14-Story Office Tower, Oct. 6, 2022, The New York Times

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