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Green Building Curmudgeon

Why Do We Have Waste?

Henry Ford cut waste by using boards from packing crates for Model T floorboards.

Recycling is becoming firmly entrenched in society. Kids in school are taught the merits of recycling paper, plastics, and the like, and are successfully shaming their parents into changing their behavior.

Green building programs promote job-site recycling. This is all well and good, but it occurs to me that the problem is much larger and systemic than simply figuring out what to do with the waste that we create. What we need to do is figure out how to eliminate waste. By that I don’t mean just being better about ordering our materials so we end up with less waste; we need to strive for eliminating the concept of “waste” entirely.

Lessons from the past

When Henry Ford gave orders to his suppliers for his early cars, he included tight specifications for the wood crates, which he reused for the floorboards on the assembly line. The boards were cut to size and provided for free by his vendors. Ford successfully eliminated one waste stream by turning it into a raw material requiring no shipping or processing.

As far back as the 19th century, mills shipped their grain in bulk sacks, which were then turned into clothing by millions of customers. This practice became so popular that the bag mills began printing decorative patterns on the inside of the bags to make the resulting clothes more attractive. Customers anxiously awaited each year’s new pattern, and people all over the country would step out in matching clothes each season after their bags were empty.

Cabinets and Cheerios

In our current high-volume/big-box society where the lowest price rules, the products we purchase have been manufactured thousands of miles away, and so require extensive disposable packaging to keep them safe on their long journey to store shelves. From light fixtures to kitchen cabinets to flat-screen TVs to Cheerios, virtually everything we buy comes packaged for the convenience of the seller and shipper in virtually indestructible packaging made of cheap, often nonrecyclable material. This places a burden on the environment that most take no responsibility for.

Can we shift or are we just shiftless?

Construction waste is a systemic problem that cannot be solved until we take a hard look at how we live, including the materials we use to build our homes. I am not naïve enough to think that we can eliminate all waste, but I do think that with some careful consideration of the products we use and where we get them from, we can reduce the amount of waste we produce. Locally produced products require shorter shipping distances and less protective packaging, meaning savings on transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as less trash to discard or recycle.

A “buy local” approach will require a paradigm shift in the business of building, but I believe that it is a necessary change for us to remain (or become!) a truly sustainable society.


  1. michael anschel | | #1

    Well put
    I never knew about the flour sacks but now my clothing suddenly all makes sense. Seriously though, the paradigm shift is not an easy one. I recently received a letter from a reader of one of my articles complaining that the $2200 vanity in one of our Green projects was going to be the downfall of Green...because it symbolizes opulence. The vanity was built by a local cabinet maker who pays a good living wage, treats his workers well, has great safety measures in place including a move towards a formaldehyde free shop, and ships their cabinets without all the packaging you reference in your article. All this comes at a price, but we are so trained to expect $20 shirts, and $200 vanities that we subvert our own local businesses with our greed.

  2. studio513 | | #2

    Take It Back
    Excessive packaging will be reduced when sellers are required to take it back. All we wanted was the item, right? Did we ask for all the styrofoam and cardboard? Why is its disposal our problem?

    My favorite 2 items:
    1] Bought gun nails from a mailorder outfit. They came packed in plastic peanuts. NAILS??
    2] Bought a packetknife that came in an impregnable plastic package. Had to find a knife to get at my new knife...

  3. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #3

    Thanks for the comments
    Michael - I like your point about the "expensive" cabinet that was produced locally by a fair minded, well managed shop. Of course it can be cheaper to get it shipped in from out of state (or offshore - I once had a Chinese cabinet company trying to sell me their products), but who knows how the shop is managed, how the employees are treated, and how much fuel it took to ship it to the jobsite.

    Tom - you should stop buying such fragile nails - next time ask for the strong ones that won't break in shipment, or at least get the edible corn packing peanuts. The idea of needing a knife to open the package with the knife in it is kind of like turning life into a mobius strip - no beginning or end. But seriously, I agree that we need to make shippers responsible for their packing materials. If we ever get to the point that energy producers are liable for the carbon they create we will start getting more efficient vehicles and products, and packaging waste is a corollary of the same concept - take responsibility for what you produce. It will raise the cost of goods, but lower the penalty on society as a whole.

  4. studio513 | | #4

    Take It Back Redux
    One thing I've done, could be called antisocial but I don't think so - is actually take the excessive packaging back to the outfit that gave it to me and leave it by their front door. Here you go take care of this OK?

  5. BrianTheCarpenter | | #5

    construction waste alternatives
    As a carpenter I have for years now been asked by homeowners to replace treated-lumber decks because they were "rotten"... well, they don't really rot, they just get sun-damaged and splintery, because they're commonly not given any protection. When the saw cuts 1/16" into the surface, it looks like new lumber, and i've reused such lumber for many purposes rather than throw it into a dumpster (from where I believe it would end up being incinerated for us all to breathe the CCA...).

    So my question is this: how hard would it be to create a new industry diverting this waste stream into a chipper plant to remanufacture it into strandboard for special applications, using the characteristics of the very high fiber quality of SYP (and on the west coast, DF) lumber used to produce treated lumber, and keeping the toxics out of landfills?

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