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Reusing Rubble From Demolished Schools Cuts Costs

August 20, 2016

The phrase, “back to school” spurs many families to grab school supplies.  Some may reuse stuff from previous years like an old backpack or calculator  to save some money.

School districts cut costs and practice sustainability by reusing materials and equipment gleaned from freshly demolished schools.

Being a sustainable-conscious community, Eugene has long taken a proactive stance on not letting everything end up in a landfill. The first thing the Eugene School District does when a school is being demolished is find materials that can be salvaged and sent to other schools, says spokeswoman Kerry Delf. That's something district employees did during the tear down of Roosevelt Middle School.

“So at Roosevelt for example, as I walked through hallways on its final days, I saw staff taking doorknobs off of the doors, removing shelving that could be put to good use in other buildings, Delf says. "We have stacks of chairs in good condition.  Removed desks and tables and other materials that could be reused.  We have more than 30 schools that are always looking for good materials.”

Delf is standing on the site of another school demolition, Howard Elementary. A road grader drives across the spot where the old school used to stand, towards the new one that opens this fall. Delf says salvaged materials are also auctioned off or offered to private and charter schools.

“Not everything can be salvaged, but the district works to find a home quickly for materials that we can. The school district also invites non-profit agencies to come and see what’s available to them," she says. "BRING Recycling gathers a lot of materials for reuse in our community, so we expect that some of these materials that used to live in the school will now wind up in residents’ homes.”

In Springfield, BRING Recycling’s executive director, Carolyn Stein, opens a large storage building to reveal some of their salvaged materials from the school district.

“These are woodshop workbenches that came out of Roosevelt Middle School.  They’re pretty fantastic.  They have this 2-inch thick wood top, with the vise and metal lockers at the bottom to hold tools and I think you can probably even get some carved initials of some kid from 1980 on here.”

Stein says reusing materials, fixtures, and appliances is a better practice than recycling.  She says for example, it takes time and energy to melt down a steel sink and recast it, versus rescuing one from the wrecking ball and handing it off to a new home.

“People from my grandparents’ generation were using everything that they could, until its useful life was over.  And then I think the pendulum swung back again after several years of disposable items.  You have these materials that already made, to recycle them would reduce their value in some way, where as you reuse them in their current form, you save all that energy,” Stein says.

That largely jibes with what the Environmental Protection Agency and similar governmental entities are saying.  In one hypothetical example, Lane County’s Public Works Division says reuse and recycling can reduce landfill costs by 35 percent.

Salvaged materials can also just help another community member rebound from a rough experience.

“It was the exact same week that we caught the place on fire, so it just was God’s timing,” says Marshall Eck, the food services director for the Eugene Mission. 

A fire gutted the mission's kitchen last June, causing $300,000 in damage. This all happened during Roosevelt Middle School’s demolition.  Walking past a volunteer hosing off serving trays, Eck shows off some high-end, commercial grade coolers, which were donated by the Eugene School District, along with some grills and a hot dog roller.

“It’s new in my world, that’s for sure," Eck says. "Typically you think a school district, and you think there’s all these hoops, jumps, and everything you’d have to do to even get that equipment.  You would assume that it’d just be probably discarded in a scrap yard.”

Eck says what the Eugene mission won’t use — like that hot dog roller — can be sold, with funds going towards his organization’s efforts to feed the homeless.

Reuse advocates hope contractors and building operators alike take the time to assess what’s salvageable before knocking down a structure.  They say it saves money, lessens landfill waste, and can benefit those who may not be able to afford their own materials or appliances.


A stack of steel sinks donated to BRING Recycling.

Brian Bull