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  • Writer's pictureLuna Oiwa

A Trip to Boulder, Colorado

Updated: Jan 8

In early December I traveled to the Denver and Boulder area and while I was there, I met up with the City of Boulder’s Circular Economy Policy Advisor Emily Freeman. Emily is an individual whom I met through the Build Reuse network, and up to that point I had only ever spoken to her over video calls – it was wonderful to finally meet in person.


Over lunch with her coworkers, I told her the news that I would be starting at the EPA just two weeks from that day. From there, we went to visit a reuse store and a waste transfer / industrial recycling facility that Emily had been gracious enough to schedule tours for.

 

Resource Central


The reuse center we visited was Resource Central. What’s interesting to note about Resource Central is that it isn’t just a reuse center. As its logo hints, the nonprofit runs water and energy conservation programs as well.



The reuse store sells enough to be financially self-sustaining, and accepts a wide range of materials including wood, flooring, doors, lighting fixtures, bricks, roofing, cabinets, toilets, countertops, refrigerators, and even items like insulation, fencing, and microwaves. The store has two sections – one section is an indoor space where smaller and more weather-sensitive materials are kept, and the other is an outdoor space with a canopy over it that was erected just last year with funds received from the state, city, and private donors.


Note that Resource Central is not the only reuse store in the area - another non-profit that is relatively close by is the National Center for Craftsmanship. In addition to encouraging reuse, the National Center for Craftsmanship has a focus on job training. And in addition to these non-profits, there are also a handful of for-profit entities accepting and reselling building materials.


Boulder’s Deconstruction Ordinance


To take a step back, the City of Boulder is one of the few cities in the US with a deconstruction ordinance – a policy that mandates deconstruction for certain buildings. The other cities with deconstruction ordinances in the US are (as far as I am aware!) Portland, OR; Palo Alto, CA; San Antonio, TX; and sort of Milwaukee, WI (I say “sort of” because this ordinance is currently paused) [1]. Of this short list, the Boulder deconstruction ordinance is one of only two that includes both residential and commercial projects – the other being Palo Alto.


The Boulder Deconstruction Ordinance went into effect 3 years ago in 2020, and since then the city has approved somewhere in the range of 40 to 50 deconstruction projects annually [2]. The way that it works is that if a building is slated to come down, in most cases its materials must be taken apart and sorted so that at least 75% of the materials by weight are reused or recycled. Only a minimum of three material types are required to be diverted, but according to Emily, the spirit of the ordinance is to apply this deconstruction and reuse mindset to most of the materials in the building – like the wood, flooring, doors, lighting fixtures, bricks, roofing, cabinets, that Resource Central accepts [3].

 

Deconstruction Under the Boulder Ordinance


A (simplified) step by step of a typical deconstruction project under this ordinance goes something like this:

  • First, the project develops a Sustainable Deconstruction Plan. Resource Central in particular offers pre-demolition walkthroughs to help develop this Plan.

  • Next, the project submits the Sustainable Deconstruction Plan, a demolition permit application, and a deconstruction deposit to the City.

  • Once the permit is approved, the deconstruction process can begin. The deconstruction is done by one of several deconstruction contractors in the Boulder area.

  • The project must then document that it meets the 75% by weight diversion requirement, and that it has maximized reuse over recycling whenever possible.

  • The project then sends the reusable items where they are likely to be reused. Sometimes this means it goes to entities like Resource Central. Other times, as with the recent Alpine-Balsam Avenue hospital project, the reusable materials are left on site for people to take [4].

  • If City requirements have been met, the project receives its deconstruction deposit back. If requirements have not been met, the City works with the project to understand the project’s circumstances and work from there.

 

Challenges


As we were chatting, Emily brought up a handful of challenges that she and her team are currently grappling with:

  • How to ensure and enforce that the “reusable” materials from the pre-demolition walkthrough are in fact deconstructed and transported to a place where they are likely to be reused? And how to be fair about requiring this, given that Boulder does not (yet) have a big demand for reclaimed materials?

  • How to engage demolition and deconstruction contractors to meet the intent of the Deconstruction Ordinance, particularly when smaller, cross-regional contractors feel it is not worth their time to know all the nuances of Boulder-specific sustainability policy? What to do about the cases in which contractors would rather give up the deconstruction deposit than go through the effort of providing diversion data?

  • And would it somehow be possible to increase landfill tipping fees above its current ~$180 per ton to further encourage diversion from a financial standpoint? [5]

Despite the challenges, Boulder has a lot to be proud of and some great momentum going. For one, it is reusing structural steel at a time when structural reuse is still exceedingly rare in this country – the 1970s-1980s steel beams in the aforementioned Alpine-Balsam hospital deconstruction project had their bolted ends cut so that they can be reused in the structural supports for the new Fire Station 3 and a clubhouse at a city-owned golf course. The city is continuing to investigate potential other collaborations with various community organizations [6].


And on a separate but related note – outside of building material reuse, the city has been developing a reusable takeout containers program that is expanding to more and more restaurants.

 

Western Disposal Services


In addition to Resource Central, our group also visited Western Disposal Services just down the road. Western is a waste transfer and industrial recycling facility. It offers construction waste sorting and diversion services with a focus on separating asphalt, cardboard (old, corrugated cardboard/containers, or OCC as they called it), reinforced concrete, and metal. No demolition waste is accepted, as the transfer station is unable to handle asbestos; however, interestingly the facility does accept residential and commercial organic materials.




Comparison to NYC


Now let’s look at New York City.

  • Policy. New York City does not have any kind of deconstruction policy or program; nor does it have a percent-based construction and demolition (C&D) waste diversion requirement. Through RECLAIM NYC (https://reclaim-nyc.org/) I am becoming more aware of interest in deconstruction and reuse from multiple stakeholders, but no group has been able to wrangle this enthusiasm into a plan quite yet.

  • Data. In New York City, comprehensive data on C&D waste quantities and diversion rates is lacking. Through a quick Google search, the best estimate I was able to find was “an average of 7,500 tons of [C&D] waste each day.” This figure, cited in multiple articles, comes from a report by the NYC Department of Design and Construction from… 2003 [7].

  • Landfill fees. After a quick Google search I was unable to find a good price per ton estimate for construction and demolition waste in New York City.

  • Building material reuse stores. Of the reuse stores in New York City, so far I have only visited Sawkill Lumber (a reclaimed lumber store) and Big Reuse, which I understand to be the biggest reuse store in the five boroughs. Big Reuse used to have a deconstruction program; however when it lost its Astoria warehouse in 2017, it was unable to continue this program. Today, I imagine there are much less building materials in its inventory than there once were.

  • Deconstruction contractors. Having briefly spoken to an individual at the demolition company Alba, I know Alba does some reclamation and reselling of materials they come across; however, I am not aware of any contractors that specialize in deconstruction in New York City.

  • Space. While it was mentioned at Resource Central that the nonprofit’s warehouse space is finite and that the team is selective about what they choose to accept, it was clear from being there and from reflecting on Big Reuse’s story of losing its Astoria warehouse that space is not as much of a pressing concern in Boulder as it is in New York City.

 

Final Thoughts


I say this often, but reuse is very context-dependent – what works and what doesn’t will depend on the types of buildings and building materials, reuse-adjacent businesses, the political will, etc., that are in the area. As a result, the same deconstruction and reuse policies can’t simply be copy-pasted from place to place.


And in the same vein, I find it very helpful to visit and talk to people in person when trying to understand the reuse ecosystem of a given place. 



As I ease into my new job, I hope I don’t lose sight of the importance of local context, the boots-on-the-ground reality, and the fact that both the issues at hand (emissions, pollution, etc.) and the solutions that address them are very much tied to people. I want to remember all the conversations I’ve had with the folks in the building material reuse community who have offered their time to talk to me. I will be involved at the macro level, but want to stay in touch with the work happening in Boulder, and elsewhere.


Thank you again to Emily and her team at the City of Boulder, Neal and his team at Resource Central, and Kathy and her team at Western Disposal Services – not only for sharing a piece of your world with me, but also for the important work you do daily.

And special thanks to Raiid for taking that last photo, and for being an all-around excellent travel companion :))

 




FOOTNOTES:


[1] It is good to note here that several other cities have deconstruction ordinances currently in the works. For more on deconstruction policies, here is the Build Reuse Wiki policy page I have been putting together! While it is not complete, it is still the most comprehensive list of U.S. deconstruction ordinances that I am aware of:


[2] According to Emily, the number of distinct deconstruction “projects” can be difficult to pin down because in some cases multiple permits are submitted for the same address (one for a single-family home, one for its detached garage, etc.) even when both structures are taken down concurrently.


[3] For the full ordinance, refer to:


[4] This hospital projects achieved a whopping 97% landfill diversion through deconstruction of both the core and interiors! For more, refer to: https://coloradosun.com/2023/10/29/boulder-community-hospital-deconstruction-recycled/ 


[5] For the Boulder construction and demolition waste price per ton estimate, Emily provided me with pricing for a waste disposal company with a large presence in the area. She noted that prices are generally privately negotiated based on factors such as volume, material type, recycled content, payment terms, etc. 


[6] While the steel salvage process was initially estimated to take 5-6 weeks, the team was able to get the job done in just 3.5 weeks. All in all, 536 pieces of structural steel were recovered, <30 pieces were lost to damage, and so far, 90 pieces have been implemented into new construction.


[7] The 7,500 tons a day figure is mentioned here:

 

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