What Does it Mean to “Scale” Reuse?

What does it mean to “scale” reuse? What are the metrics for success?

These were two questions posed to a group of building material reuse experts as part of the Wa$ted Market Convenings, organized by non-profit Archeworks and circular economy organizer Nicolette Stosur-Bassett. The seminar on Scale was held at Great Lakes Yard (pictured above!). I sat on the panel, not as a reuse expert but as an academic thinking about how the reuse, recycling and circular economy efforts connect to the grander effort for global ecological balance.

This question about scale is important because answering it requires consideration of the underlying priorities of the building material reuse effort. Most organizations involved in activating the Chicago reuse scene are likely to claim environmental concerns as a motivator. One of Cook County’s major environmental initiatives has been implementation of the Demolition Debris Diversion (3D) Ordinance, which requires 70% of demolition debris to be recycled and 5% of residential demolition debris to be reused. The ordinance has fueled a growth in reuse activity and attention to the topic.

To highlight the many places for intervention and scale (up or down) in the building material system, I created a stocks and flows diagram. Each stock (boxes), process (diamonds) and the connections between them (arrows) represent an activity that might be scaled up, out or down. And there are plenty of ways to derive “success metrics” from these stocks and flows. See The Building Material Reuse Ecosystem [PDF] for more detail.

The Building Material Reuse Ecosystem (click for detail)

My answer to the scale question was thus a clarification of the reuse industry’s underlying goals: If the goal is global ecological sustainability, then not every version of scaling up reuse activity fulfills that goal.  

One obvious “metric of success” for the reuse industry is an increase in the volume of reusable material captured from demolition or remodeling projects and then made available through reuse warehouses. A greater supply of reusables could be a good thing, driving down prices and ensuring reuse-conscious customers find what they’re looking for.

Now, imagine the ways in which this supply of reusables might be generated. It could be through greater diversion from the baseline wastestream – this is the goal of the 3D Ordinance: The material that was headed for a landfill can be salvaged for a second life. But consider the mechanisms that generate the wastestream in the first place: construction, demolition and remodeling activity. If these activities rise then the stock of reusables will rise in equal measure but would that be a win for the environment? Here is where we run into a clash between the act of scaling up and the ecological goals of reuse.

If industrial building stock cannot find new tenants willing to creatively adapt for modern production activities, then more of those buildings will be torn down – a massive waste of embodied energy. If society demands greater and greater square footage per-person at home, older households will continue to be demolished rather than restored. And if home and business owners find it cheap, easy and fashionable to remodel their interiors every few years then the impact of their new purchases may outweigh the benefits of reusing their waste. All of these demolition and remodeling activities would increase the supply of reusables and reuse activity, but at great resource and energy opportunity cost.

These examples illustrate how the goal of “increasing building material reuse” is not, by itself, a robust goal if we are also concerned with global ecology. An ecologically-concerned reuse industry must be aimed at capturing more reusables from the current wastestream and also ensuring that more materials are reused in-place. Here are some proposed metrics for success:

Less

  • new construction
  • needless demolition
  • frequent remodeling activity

More

  • reuse and restoration of existing structures
  • reuse of existing structures for their highest and best use (ie. industrial properties for industrial activities)
  • per-capita utilization of structures (ie. more people/users per square foot of space).

This question of what it means to scale must be asked not just of the reuse industry but of every activity with a “green” tinge. The goal must be to scale up while also facilitating greater material longevity and lower resource demand.

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