From a process standpoint, building recycling begins very much like traditional demolition projects, with the take down of the interior structures, including tenant improvements. Wood studs from the walls and other timber materials are extracted and glass is removed, as is all aluminum and mechanical equipment. The building's concrete structure, structural steel and roof are then knocked down using tractors and loaders.

At this juncture, the "traditional" and "recycling" methods diverge -- while the debris materials from the usual demolition process are loaded into trucks headed for a landfill, activity at the building recycling project looks altogether different.

Demolished concrete is transported to another area of the demolition site for crushing and reuse as an aggregate compound in laying the foundation for the new slab and asphalt paving base. Structural steel and aluminum are transported to an industrial recycling facility to be melted down and reused in various products. So is the glass. All two-by-fours and wood products are collected and recycled via sale or donation. The building's mechanical equipment, including electrical switch gear panels, air handlers, pumps, water risers, cabling and copper wiring, is harvested and made available for older facilities which require vintage parts. Even asphalt from parking and other areas is broken, ground up and reused along with the concrete aggregate.

Only the drywall and roofing, which comprise a very small percentage of the total structural materials, are not suitable for reuse.

So, what does all this building recycling mean in environmental terms? Beyond the obvious notion that "recycling is good," recycling buildings allows the commercial real estate industry to make a measurable difference in the health of our planet.

Environmental preservation

Environmentally, the problem of deforestation is one of the hottest issues of the 1990s and is likely to continue to be so well into the 21st century. According to the Rainforest Action Network of San Francisco, California, the global rate of rain forest deforestation is 2.4 acres per second -- roughly equivalent to two U.S. football fields -- or 149 acres per minute. In addition to destruction of the actual timber itself, deforestation is directly responsible for the extinction of approximately 137 species of plants and animals per day. If deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate nearly all tropical rain forest ecosystems will be destroyed by the year 2030.

Building recycling helps slow down deforestation. Though its impact may seem small in proportion to worldwide consumption, the wood products recycled and reused via this process represent a positive step in maintaining viable forest resources. And this impact will only increase as more developers, owners and businesses recognize the benefits of building recycling and expand the scope of its use.

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