Builders in the U.S. Virgin Islands could lower construction costs and help slow the flow of waste material into landfills if they learned to practice “sustainable deconstruction,” according to presenters at a weekend conference sponsored by the Island Green Living Association.
The conference, held Friday and Saturday at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center on St. Thomas, educated participants on reusing and recycling building materials. Participants from all islands in the territory participated in the workshops and engaged in core learning sessions and simulated activities.
Dave Bennink, the director of Re-Use Consulting in Bellingham, Washington, served as the core speaker of the workshops. He has 29 years of experience and has worked on 5,000 projects in nine countries relating to sustainable deconstruction. As a result, he has kept more than 50,000 tons of material out of landfills. Some of the material he saved has even been used on the Animal Planet network reality show “Treehouse Masters.”
“They really like the idea of being sustainable and using items from their own island,” says Bennink, of one of the small islands that border the state of Washington that he assists with sustainable deconstruction. Residents on the island continuously reuse building materials to be more sustainable, as opposed to traveling to the mainland to purchase new materials.
According to Island Green Living Association, sustainable deconstruction is the systematic dismantling of a building in order to recover the maximum number of materials for reuse and recycling, rather than tearing them down and carting the material off as kindling.
“We’re all about resource conservation,” said Island Green’s Executive Director Kelly McKinney. “It’s all about resource management and helping people rethink their connection with resources, why does it matter to conserve resources, and introduce opportunities and education.”
There are five key areas to focus on in sustainable deconstruction, Bennink said: historic preservation, the environment and climate, affordable housing and materials, creating jobs, and equity and sustainability.
“We’re focused on healing the environment. In fact, we’re focused on ‘Can we create a business where people make money saving the planet,’” Bennink said.
According to Bennink, the average American discards about 130,000 pounds of waste in their lifetime, and the average American house weighs about 130,000 pounds. Demolishing one house is equivalent to the amount of waste one person makes in their lifetime. By deconstructing houses, 62 percent of materials can be reused, 34 percent can be recycled and four percent can be disposed.
“Right now the world is in a spot where people are talking about problems, and they’re wanting to make a change, but they don’t really feel like they need to make it yet. And when it gets bad enough and they think that they need to make a change, it might be too late,” said Bennink. “We don’t want to make a change. We feel like we need to make a change … Our goal is to bring up the circular economy here.”
Sustainable development changes the world from utilizing a linear economic approach to a circular economic one where products can be reused as opposed to discarded.
“In our world somebody makes something and somebody bought it. And then we saved it, we didn’t throw it away. And then somebody else buys it and then we save it again, hopefully, and then it gets used again. So it becomes more like a circle and that’s what the circular economy is all about,” Bennink said.
In addition, sustainable deconstruction adds to the job market, where jobs are created because there is now a need to utilize people to deconstruct buildings and sometimes repair saved materials, as opposed to using a machine to demolish buildings. It also allows saving used materials and selling them for less than the cost of new ones, creating affordable materials.
In Washington, Bennink created the Reuse Innovation Center, a combination of businesses that serve as the operational warehouse for building deconstruction. There are ten sections including intake, loading, recycling, repair, and workshops that work to preserve saved materials.
According to Island Green, more than 315,000 pounds of construction and demolition debris enters the U.S. Virgin Islands’ waste every year, much of which can potentially be reused or repurposed. The association urges residents to consider deconstruction instead of demolition when discarding building materials.
The deconstruction workshops were made available through the Sustainable Materials Management grant that Island Green was able to secure from the Environmental Protection Agency.