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Building Deconstruction Presents ‘Urban Mining’ Opportunities in US Cities

US cities are looking to urban mining as a way to reduce the waste of building materials and bolster the economy – with important climate, sustainability, and social benefits. Community Forklift, a Maryland-based non-profit founded in 2005, has pioneered this model. The furniture and architectural salvage store, which employs about 30 people with an annual budget of around US$3 million, has now helped prevent a mountain of materials from going to landfills – 3,400 doors, 6.6 miles (10km) of lumber, 74,000sq ft (7,000sq m) of tiles, and more. “In any building being torn down, there will almost always be some elements that are still valuable,” said Community Forklift executive director Trey Davis. “But if you really want to attack the volume of stuff going into landfills, you have to do the everyday stuff.”

Growing trend

The reuse trend has been escalating in the US, fuelled in part by local officials looking to reduce pressure on landfill sites and boost the economy. Several cities and states are also introducing policies to encourage building deconstruction, taking note of cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, San Antonio, Texas, Boise, Idaho, and Portland, Oregon. “Deconstruction has been scaled up, and it’s happening all over the country,” said Neil Seldman, co-founder of non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It was a permanent part of the system back in the 1920s, and it has come back because of economic, environmental, and social need.”

Green benefits

The US produced about 600 million tonnes of construction and demolition debris in 2018, more than twice its municipal solid waste, according to the latest available data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Revenue from deconstruction and reuse has tripled since 2008, to around US$1.4 billion (RM6.2 billion) last year. The sector now employs some 14,500 people and keeps about 350,000 tonnes out of landfills every year, said Brad Guy, an architect with Material Reuse, a sustainable architecture consultancy. Yet, that accounts for just 0.2% of total US construction and demolition waste, said Guy, who co-founded what is today Build Reuse, a national umbrella group for the sector. The expanding use of digital inventory systems that allow material to be tracked and sold could make a significant difference, but much of the industry has focused on urban areas with higher property values.

Related Facts:

– The construction industry uses half of the 100 billion tonnes of material extracted from nature every year, and is responsible for a third of the world’s waste and 40% of carbon dioxide emissions.
– The Delta Institute reports that in a typical home, only between 5% and 15% of materials cannot be reused or recycled.

Key Takeaway:

Community Forklift has pioneered through the reuse trend in the US, but this provides just a fraction of the wider issue of disposal. While cities are now introducing policies encouraging building deconstruction, and the expanding use of digital inventory systems could make an impact, ultimately far greater government backing will be required.


Urban mining is certainly a growing trend in the US. Local officials are keen to lessen the pressure on landfill sites and to boost the economy. While Community Forklift has led the way, the amount of recycled and reused materials is reckoned to account for just 0.2% of the total amount of waste. While the expanding use of digital inventory systems might ease that, wider government backing will likely be needed.

Denk Liu
Denk Liu
Denk Liu is an honest person who always tells it like it is. He's also very objective, seeing the situation for what it is and not getting wrapped up in emotion. He's a regular guy - witty and smart but not pretentious. He loves playing video games and watching action movies in his free time.

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