As blogged on Smithsonian.com, when Ruthie Mundell was in high school, everyone laughed at her for digging through the trash. She’d count paper, cans and cardboard, keeping careful numbers on trash volume and recycling rates. Her “trash audit” led to a local recycling revolution in Leonardtown, Maryland, amounting to more bins and higher student recycling rates.
Now, 25 years later, her recycling mission is bigger in scope and scale.
“We’re so proud of ourselves for recycling soda cans and office paper. But we’re not thinking about the larger scale stuff,” she says.
Mundell, marketing and outreach director at Community Forklift, is one of many women around the country leading the reuse and recycling charge. Instead of focusing on trendy plastic straw bans, they are recycling whole houses.
Mundell dons her hard hat and strolls through the warehouse of the 40,000-square-foot compound at Community Forklift, a reuse center for home improvement supplies in Bladensburg, Maryland. Dozens of volunteers and employees bustle around her. They unload a granite countertop, help customers measure new cabinetry, and inventory lumber.
At first glance, it looks like Home Depot, minus the matching orange aprons. Take a closer look, and you’ll notice the imperfections—mismatched lengths of lumber, half-used cans of paint, a countertop with a chipped corner. For Mundell, these are signs of opportunity. Everything at Community Forklift comes from buildings deconstructed to preserve reusable items, which Mundell says is up to 90 percent of a structure.
“Even the guts of the house can be reused, not just the pretty stuff like the claw foot tubs and chandeliers,” Mundell says. “Someone who wants to save money can come in here and buy a bag of insulation for two bucks, and they’re thrilled.”
Construction and demolition waste, or C&D waste, accumulate after the construction, renovation and demolition of buildings and houses. The EPA estimates that in 2015, the United States generated 548 million tons of C&D waste. That’s more than twice the amount of municipal solid waste or everyday items tossed into our trash bins. Reuse centers, like Community Forklift, work with deconstruction crews to take apart buildings, reselling the materials at a fraction of the cost.