Deconstructing a Case for Re-use of Building Materials

I hate waste, so I’m usually tempted by articles about recycling or reuse. The NY Times has this magazine-length one in print today, primarily about efforts to take down a Dutch office tower but salvage the parts. The theme is that building materials and demolitions account for a huge swath of the carbon footprint, among other blights. The story’s reporting was funded by left-of-center foundations as part of the Times’ “Headway initiative…exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress.” Thus alerted, what I looked for were economic considerations to what’s called “circularity,” or the effort to maintain the usability of things or at least their recyclability. It’s an important element of what’s broadly known as sustainability. Surely, the junking of building interiors and exteriors is a glaring example of the contrary. Anecdotally, it seems that each time a high-end New York City restaurant fails, the new tenant operator has to rip out the wonderful decor and replace it with an even costlier look. This kind of debris constitutes not only “half of all waste in the Netherlands,” as per the Times, but big chunks of landfill in housing-mad places like Long Island. (Just wait until the current crop of McMansions comes down!) The efficiency question for an economist, however, is whether the cost of disposal–even with all of the externalities such as pollution figured in–exceeds that of an alternative, “sustainable” model. We know that currently most recycling programs for consumer products do not meet that test. In the long Times piece, I found one reference to this aspect: a 2012 study by McKinsey & Co. for a British environmental foundation that argued E.U. manufacturers could save $630 billion a year from design-for-reuse. A breakdown that applies such analysis to case-at-hand scrutiny would be useful. Instead what I read here were more ideological appeals to a “sharing” economy with less ownership prerogatives. That’s an interesting but, in my view, more fanciful concept than getting the highest return from scarce resources in our moment on this planet.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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