Expediency is critical in the demolition industry. In order to be profitable, contractors have to work quickly to get in, out and on to the next job in as little time as is possible.
However, there is a case for a more nuanced approach to demolition, according to Damon Carson, founder and president of Denver-based Repurposed Materials Inc.
With offices in Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia, Repurposed Materials buys materials throughout the country that would otherwise be discarded and sent to landfill and sells them to individuals and businesses where these items have a chance at a second life.
According to Carson, repurposing is different from the traditional recycling and reuse applications that contractors might be familiar with.
“Repurposing materials, for definition purposes, is taking byproducts and waste from industry and finding value for use ‘as is’ in a second industry,” Carson says. “Recycling traditionally requires taking a material and converting it to something else via chipping, shredding, grinding or melting. Reuse is something we’re all familiar with, and you can use boats, forklifts and refrigerators as examples. There is a secondary market for all these things to be sold off where a boat will be used as a boat, a forklift will be used as a forklift, and a refrigerator will be used as a refrigerator, etc. So, they have the same function even after going to a second buyer. Repurposing, by contrast, is using a product or material in a different capacity than what it was created for to give it a very different second life.”
Carson uses the example of a typical fire hose used by fire departments throughout the country. Once these age, malfunction or are decommissioned, they are no longer useful for helping fight fires. Although they have no utility for the purpose for which they were created, Carson says they still can be used by boat dock owners, for example, who can use the hose for bumpers or fenders to protect fiberglass boats from damage against wood or steel docks.
It is this eye for finding materials that can live on after demolition that can help contractors generate revenue from materials that would otherwise be discarded. While this can be lucrative, it often requires a different approach to demolition that has its trade-offs.
“Demolition contractors bid jobs, and speed is of the essence,” Carson says. “They’re thinking, ‘How fast can I get this building on the ground?’ And in most cases when something is repurposed, it needs to be preserved, so there has to be a deconstruction or disassembly mindset with that, which usually means more labor hours. So, it’s always a trade-off between getting value for the materials in the project you’re working on and working quickly, and the contractor has to do that analysis on a project-by-project basis.”
Finding end markets
When it comes to applications for repurposing, beauty—and value—is in the eye of the beholder.
There is virtually no limit on what materials found on the job site can be resold by contractors. However, part of the decision on whether or not to landfill material will be dictated by how easy it will be to resell the repurposed items. That’s where companies like Repurposed Materials come in.
Instead of having to search for buyers themselves, contractors can utilize third parties to take the hassle out of the process.
“Obviously, contractors can sell these materials themselves, but they have to let the world know what they have in their possession,” Carson says. “That comes with a cost for advertising, which is not insignificant. Then there is the time component. That steel beam, or whatever the material is, is probably not going to sell within 48 hours. It might take weeks or months to find a buyer for that. In the meantime, the contractor has to think about where they’re going to store this material while they wait for the buyer. Certainly, if a contractor can find a buyer themselves, they’re going to make more money. There is no question about it, but they have to think about advertising costs, all the work that goes into finding a seller, and the hassle of potentially having to store the material for prolonged periods. I think in many cases, demo contractors feel like they’re good at demoing buildings, but might not be so interested in selling their salvage, so that’s where going through a third party makes sense.”
Contractors looking to outsource the selling of their products have different options. According to Carson, different cities have different end markets. Traditional brokers can be used to find a home for the material in question, but they often look to find a buyer while the material stays in possession of the contractor or on the job site and then pay the contractor once a buyer has been found. Depending on the product, this can happen quickly or take months.
Other companies, such as Repurposed Materials, buy the material outright from contractors, so the need to find a temporary home for the repurposed materials is negated. In this case, all the contractor needs to do is send detailed information such as pictures, dimensions, descriptions, quantity, make/model—if applicable—and location of the material. The third party will then come back with an offer if it is something they think they can sell.
The economics of repurposing
In order to gauge the economics of repurposing materials, Carson says variables like labor hours, resources required, potential material end markets and disposal costs should all come into play.
“Where repurposing really makes sense is when it’s easy, for example, if you’re working on a school gym floor,” Carson says. “How much more effort would it take to rough cut 4-foot by 8-foot sections of wood by hand versus taking a skid steer and scraping everything up? By hand doesn’t take a whole lot of extra work, necessarily, but can make financial sense if you can find a home for the material. If a contractor spends 10 percent more time demoing a floor, but saves four dumpsters and finds a home for the material, they have to weigh these things and get out their calculators to see if it is the right move for the job.”
Another area where repurposing can make financial sense for a contractor is when the need for diversion is written into the contract. For example, many projects where sustainability and zero waste is emphasized, such as on a school demolition, can be aided by repurposing.
“On these types of green projects, the client might say that they want a 70 percent diversion rate, or whatever the number is, and the contractor has to be able to meet that,” Carson says. “Things like concrete might be easy to recycle, but then you start to think about what is going to happen with the roof insulation and a million other factors. So, hitting a 50 percent diversion rate might be easy, but you might have to get creative to meet your goal. That’s where repurposing plays a role. Everyone knows what to do with jackhammered out concrete and steel rebar, but there are a bunch of materials that don’t have a natural recycling outlet and repurposing becomes a viable option to keep these things out of landfills.”
Although deconstruction often requires more planning for contractors, being able to show an ability and willingness to find a new home for would-be landfilled material can be just what it takes to win a bid in today’s competitive climate.
“In the old days, it might’ve been about who could come in with the lowest price to knock a building down,” Carson says. “Now, there is new criteria being written into contracts. Price might still be the most important consideration on a lot of jobs, but contractors who can show they’re able to divert more material from landfill might still win a bid even if they’re not the lowest. Demo contractors might hate seeing this type of language put into contracts because it makes more work for them, but if the client is demanding, companies like ours can help and it doesn’t have to be quite so painful.”
The author is the editor for Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine and can be contacted at email@example.com.