Salvage Beauty

Reused building materials take a load off the environment

| November / December 2007

  • Salvage Beauty by Chris Lyons
    Salvage Beauty by Chris Lyons
    Chris Lyons

  • Salvage Beauty by Chris Lyons

It’s a busy Monday at the Loading Dock, a cavernous, 42,000-square-foot retail warehouse in Baltimore that is stocked floor-to-ceiling with salvaged building materials. Leslie Kirkland, executive director of the nonprofit store, is trying to figure out where to stash four semitrailer loads of rolled carpet remnants.

Like the bulk of the store’s inventory, the new carpet was donated by a local company and, instead of ending up in a landfill, will find use in homes across the greater Baltimore area. Over the next few weeks, 15 roll-off Dumpsters of used lumber will be delivered to the Loading Dock, along with kitchen cabinets and appliances from a 400-unit apartment building, all destined for reuse.

Kirkland’s organization claims to be the oldest nonprofit “reuse center.” Since it opened 23 years ago, it’s expanded several times to meet customers’ demand for inexpensive sinks, doors, carpets, and the like. “We’re busting at the seams,” she says. “We’ve been here two years and we could already use another 40,000 square feet.” Similar stories are playing out every day across the country at hundreds of reuse stores as the idea of saving cash by recycling building materials catches on.

While there’s always been a market for architectural salvage, in the past it was largely con-fined to boutique shoppers seeking a match to an antique wall sconce, a carved oak mantelpiece, or marble door handles. Stores like the Loading Dock cater to a less rarefied crowd of bargain hunters and low-income home owners. “We’re like a secondhand Home Depot,” Kirkland says. “We have claw-foot bathtubs, and that gets at some of the fun architectural salvage side of it. But our mission is to provide low-cost building materials.”

It’s a mission that dovetails with the nation’s burgeoning green building movement. Flip through the glossy home and garden magazines and you come away with an impression of green building that features expensive high-tech gadgetry like photovoltaic solar systems and geothermal pumps, or pricey products like organic sheets and bamboo compost containers. But running out to buy the latest hip “green lifestyle” product might actually do more harm than good. It turns out that the greenest choice of all may be reusing salvaged materials from a place like the Loading Dock.

Every product, from a two-by-four to a refrigerator, contains “embodied energy”—the energy it takes to extract the raw materials it’s made of, run the factory where it’s built, truck the product from one place to another, and so on. There’s not a huge difference between the embodied energy of, say, a hybrid and an SUV, even though the “operating energy” the hybrid uses every day may be less.

Bakari Kafele_3
12/14/2007 12:00:00 AM

I realize that the San Francisco Bay Area in CA is not necessarily representative of the rest of the country, but around here at least, this is not exactly news. Our version of the "Loading Dock" - Urban Ore - in Berkeley, has been open for 25 years. It opened originally with materials actually extracted from a landfill, and continues today with drop offs from haulers and donations from the public, as well as a recovery team at the nearby transfer station. They are very profitable, employ a full time staff, and pay haulers and the public for high quality good condition items. They have by now spawned a number of smaller copycat stores in the area, with somewhat more specialized focuses. As a hauler myself, I face plenty of competition in this area from other haulers who, like myself, run their trucks on vegetable oil and donate / recycle / reuse and sell as much of what we pick up as possible. Far from just making an incredible difference environmentally (both preventing landfill and reducing the need for new materials being made), it also makes great financial sense for everyone involved. People shopping at a reuse store pay a fraction of what they would, many times for materials which are in excellent condition - sometimes never even used! As a hauler, I pay much less in dump fees than I would if I simply disposed of everything in one place. And that means that I in turn can afford to charge my customers a lot less. Everyone wins. I hope before long every city can take this concept as much for granted as we are able to here. Until then, keep up the good work, reporting on stuff like this.

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