Construction Waste Reuse in NYC

In New York City, construction and demolition waste accounts for 50+% of the solid waste stream. OVER 50 PERCENT OF THE SOLID WASTE STREAM!!!!! This is insane. I had absolutely no idea just how much waste construction created until I crossed paths with the Program Director of Build it Green, Justin Green (what a last name!) and visited their reuse center in Astoria, Queens to learn that what is commonly being thrown away in construction projects is valuable, durable, and beautiful.

At first glance it appeared to be a much, much cooler step sibling of Home Depot with aisles filled with cans of paint, retro chairs, vintage stoves, and antiqued doors. But if you travel over to one of their two reuse centers in Astoria or Gowanus, Brooklyn, chances are that you are not just there to pick up a few screws because Build it Green! is
anything but your conventional home improvement store. It is a non-profit that sells tons of reused and salvaged materials at 40-80% off retail prices.

It is hard to envision anything in their entire reuse center even being considered trash, but amazingly it would have been had BIG not adopted it. Their inventory spans from claw foot tubs and beautiful sinks that predate my grandmother’s mother’s mother to salvaged church pews that would have otherwise been tossed.They even have gorgeous antique redwood planks (which you can’t cut down anymore) recovered from NYC water towers for sale. Ten minutes after being there, I found myself asking, “am I crafty enough to figure out how to do something with 27 antique radiators?”

During my visit I interviewed my tour guide, Jaclyn Jablkowski, Communications Manager of BIG!NYC, to learn more:

When/how was BIG!NYC founded?

In 2005, a local nonprofit organization, Community Environmental Center (CEC) secured a large grant from the Durst Foundation for what was to be the beginning of Build It Green!NYC (BIG!NYC). This included a temporary storage space and a contract from the Durst Organization for deconstruction services. CEC’s 10-person crew – including BIG!NYC cofounder Justin Green – undertook the skim deconstruction of 5 buildings in midtown Manhattan, comprised of approximately 55,000 square feet of mixed-use space. CEC’s work yielded over 70 tons of materials salvaged for reuse and recycling that would have been landfilled.

CEC initially sold materials from the deconstruction job and the storage space. Since the temporary facility could only receive a limited number of customers, CEC relocated the materials to a larger and more accessible facility in Astoria, Queens. Build It Green!NYC now operates in an 35,000 sq ft warehouse at 3-17 26th Ave in Astoria, Queens and a second location at 69 9th St. in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Customers and suppliers include the business community (e.g. general contractors, plumbing and electrical contractors, theater and film companies, commercial and residential property developers, building managers, and artisans), city agencies, homeowners and long-term renters alike.

What is BIG!NYC’s mission?

Build It Green! NYC, is New York City’s only non-profit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials. Our reuse centers have everything from panel doors to high end refrigerators, window shutters to reclaimed lumber, kitchen cabinet sets to salvaged flooring. Our mission is to keep these materials out of the landfill, while offering deep discounts on their resale. We are working towards reducing the amount of unnecessary construction and demolition (C&D) waste clogging our landfills, which contributes to pollution, GHG emissions, climate change and global warming.

What services does BIG!NYC offer?

Anyone can donate reusable building materials to our reuse centers, seven days a week (during store hours). Here’s a list of materials that are accepted:

In addition to accepting donations at two locations in NYC, BIG!NYC also provides limited free pick up services for large donations. To learn if your donation qualifies, please review this list of accepted items:

And for larger projects, BIG!NYC also offers deconstruction services. Deconstruction is the selective and careful dismantling of buildings to maximize re-use and recycling rates. Build It Green!NYC’s Deconstruction Team can professionally dismantle anything from a kitchen to a whole house, uninstalling the items carefully and removing the items as a tax deductible donation.  Decon is also your best environmental, and often financial, alternative to the landfill!

Do you find that people forget about construction waste when they think of NYC’s waste output?

NYC’s C&D waste is often overlooked when we speak about waste – we generally think of residential or commercial waste, but the city’s C&D waste contributes to 50% of our waste stream, up to 19,000 tons per day!

Do you see the construction industry moving towards greener practices?

I think the industry is growing with the green movement – from utilizing more eco-friendly products, and designing with reuse in mind, the industry is working towards improving their green practices. I think the current trend of salvage in NYC bars, restaurants and even homes doesn’t hurt the cause, either! 

What is the most interesting thing you have seen donated to BIG!?

A while back we had a donation of a HUGE silver Christmas tree ornament – it was at least 10 feet wide! The guys hung it up in Astoria, until some lucky customer spotted it and bought it as the center piece for their party.

What are BIG!NYC’s aspirations for the future?

BIG!NYC would love to continue growing as an organization, providing more green jobs for New Yorkers and salvaging more reusable materials from the city’s waste stream. Already this year we’ve launched a sawmill to transform urban wood waste into a beautiful new product. And beyond expanding the mill, our BIG!Compost initiative, and our giving back programs (BIG!Blooms and BIG!Gives Back), it would be great to see our organization grow to bigger spaces in NYC (so we can salvage more materials!).


Zero Waste Coffee

I love coffee. I drink it every day and have since I was about 15 years old. It was my saving grace in college and kept me sentient during many a sleepless night. Unfortunately, my addiction love, for coffee used to come with a high price tag, both for me and for the environment.

I used to buy my coffee every day from the cafeteria in my high school. I would buy 1-2 cups every morning and the styrofoam cups and plastic lids that it came in would go straight to landfill. It got a little bit better my freshman year of college when I lived in Paris. I used a french press, very authentic, and would drink my coffee at home before class, only to end up having to buy another once I got through my 9am 3 hour french lesson, can you blame me? Then, my sophomore year of college when I was back in NYC, I purchased a Keurig. I thought it was great. My semi-watery coffee was ready in 20 seconds, I could choose from an infinite list of exotic flavors, and I didn’t have to clean anything. I could just fill up the back of some plastic thing, wait a few seconds, and then toss out another little plastic thing. It was so easy and I had no idea how wasteful I was being. I just knew I was semi-caffeinated and that was enough for me.

Then, one August day my junior year of college, my mom brought me over a pumpkin roast that was pre-ground. It smelled like a mix of every bit of fall nostalgia that I ever had. The problem was that I could not make it in my Keurig, so I unearthed the completely glass and metal french press that I had purchased in Paris. I filled it up with boiling water, coffee and waited a few minutes. Even at first sip I could not believe it. It was so much more flavorful and rich than the single serve coffee that I had been drinking. I had truly forgotten how wonderful coffee could be. A few days later, I sold my Keurig on Craigslist and relied solely on my french press. I haven’t used anything else since.

Now that I am working and have to be up at 7am, coffee is everything. Including expensive. I just graduated, have an entry level job, and get paid a very, very entry level salary. While some people buy coffee every day, I simply can’t afford it, and even if I could, I still wouldn’t buy it out. Why? It is a waste of money, plus, I really think my coffee tastes better and I know exactly where it comes from because I buy Equal Exchange brand in bulk at my local market. My morning cup takes 8 minutes to make (four for the water to boil, and four for it to brew) and I can get ready during 6 of the 8 of them. It is an easy Zero Waste operation and I like it that way.

Now I make my coffee in my french press every day before work, and it pays off. A survey conducted by Accounting Principles showed that 50% of the American workforce spends $1,000 per
year on coffee which is much more than I spend on my multiple cups of organic, fair-trade coffee that I take to work in a mason jar. Here is my coffee breakdown…

-One pound of bulk Organic Fair-Trade coffee every week and a half for $10.00- $347.00/ year
-Organic milk purchased every week and a half for $5- $173.00/ year
-Bulk Organic sugar every three months for $11- $44.00/ year

Total:   $564.00 

The total is $564.00 for coffee and the works for my boyfriend and I every day of the year, so it would be even less for one! Subtract that from $1000.00 and you get $436.00 of savings. That money breaks down to about seven weeks of groceries for me, an obvious reason for me to make my coffee at home.

So there you have it. I get my milk, sugar, and coffee for over four hundred dollars less than 50% of the American workforce and it is waste free because I compost the grounds after!


Zero Waste Dental Hygiene

I recently saw an advertisement that said there are 4.7 billion plastic toothbrushes produced annually with each brush lasting about 1000 years. I saw a second piece, which said that over 80 million pounds of toothbrushes are thrown into North American landfills each year. Please note, while I could not track down the reviewed sources of these statements and can not vouch for their accuracy, it definitely makes me think about waste and what we consider it to be.

I have always used a toothbrush, one of those things that you are told to keep for a couple of months and then throw out and replace with a new one, and I most likely always will. I am 22 years old, have used about 6 toothbrushes per year, and started my Zero Waste journey at 21 (I stopped using plastic toothbrushes), which means I have contributed almost 130 pieces of seemingly never degrading plastic waste JUST to brush my teeth. This number is probably much higher if I consider any time I forgot a toothbrush and had to buy a new one, or bought a brush that was travel sized and used it for about a week. This is not even mentioning the toothpaste tubes!! The fact of it is, brushing your teeth produces a LOT of non-recyclable waste.

So we are doomed and have to use plastic toothbrushes forever. Right? Nope! I said above that I stopped using plastic toothbrushes. YES! About one year ago I invested in my first compostable toothbrush (there are many different brands). Not only are many of them biodegradable, sustainable, and renewable, their packaging is too! (I haven’t been able to find a solution to the nylon bristles). Wishing for totally compostable boar hair toothbrush bristles. Sigh. Well, here are some brands I have tested out…

They look sooooo much nicer than plastic toothbrushes! When you are done you can use them for a multitude of things! Here is one of mine being used to keep my avocado tree standing tall!


Zero Waste Music Festival Fashion

I have not yet posted about clothing or fashion on this blog, but I suppose now is as good of a time as ever to divulge that I buy all of my clothes secondhand to reduce the overall demand for clothing on this planet.

This past week I was in Chicago for Lollapalooza. I believe that festivals are one of the greatest place to get inspired by what others are wearing. In preparation for my week long journey I brought along a small bag filled with a few secondhand items to wear. I made sure all of the items would go together so that I could mix and match them which made packing and unpacking at each stop a cinch.

My festival packing list: 

  • Two pairs of jeans
  • Three dresses
  • Two tank tops
  • One vest
  • One set of PJ’s
  • Underwear and socks
  • One black bag
  • One hat
  • A pair of booties
  • A few pieces of statement jewelry

And thats it! The best part? My day 2 duds landed me on Elle Magazine’s website and my day 3 outfit was the cover image on Women’s Wear Daily! It just goes to show you that living a Zero Waste life does not mean you have to compromise your personal style or the quality of the clothing you wear.


Zero Waste at Music Festivals

I wore many hats this past week at Lollapalooza, both literally and figuratively, as the driver, unofficial photographer, and girlfriend of the bass player of the Brooklyn based rock band Beast Patrol.

While the starstruck, gape-mouthed, giddy side of me was euphoric throughout the entire week, the rational, critical side was constantly bombarding me with reminders of how insanely wasteful these operations can be: the energy, the fossil fuels, the cans, the travel, the disposables, the destruction of the grass beneath the feet of the gyrating populace… the list goes on and on. That being said, measures were taken both by the festival and by me to reduce the overall impact of the amalgam of festivalgoers.

I took some small steps to ensure that my week created as little impact as possible by toting along some  of my what I now call… Music Festival Essentials:

  • Mason Jar
  • Fork, Spoon, Knife
  • Cloth Napkin
  • Wide brim hat
  • Organic snacks in jars
  • A well thought out travel route with smart stops

How did I use these essentials? 

  • I brought a mason jar to use as my drinking vessel throughout the trip. It was perfect for coffee in the morning, water and drinks throughout the day, leftovers from dinner, and ice cream in the evening.
  • I only drank things that did not come in bottles that I could have in my mason jar such as mixed drinks and beer from a tap.
  • I brought a napkin, fork, knife, and spoon every day so I would not have to use plastic eating utensils.
  • I brought jars full of Organic snacks including nuts, dried fruit and granola and brought fresh fruit for the first few days of the trip.
  • I pre-researched places to stop along the route for Organic food.
  • I said NO to giveaways. Traveling with a band, I was offered a variety of giveaways that I neither needed nor wanted. The only two things I came out with were a reusable bag and reusable ear plugs (dating a musician means going to a lot of shows and as the foam earplugs are environmentally unfriendly I needed an eco-friendly alternative).
  • To be fair, I drove to Lollapalooza and it was easily around 2000 miles. A huge amount of fossil fuels that I am not proud of. However, I squeezed myself, the four members of Beast Patrol, all of their gear and clothes in a four door car saving both money and fuel.
  • To reduce other fossil fuels from travel within Chicago I used their bike share program and took the bus, both extremely fast and affordable alternatives to cabs (plus I got to bike along the beach on my way to Lollapalooza and get some exercise and take in the beautiful landscape)!!

Lollapalooza took some great steps to reduce their environmental impact at this year’s festival. They had a Green Street with artists, non-profits, and environmentally friendly programs for festival-goers including…

  • CamelBak filling stations
  • Composting food in the artist and picnic areas
  • Hundreds of recycling bins
  • Using bio-diesel at Lolla for their primary fuel for generators
  • Collaborations with with Green Mountain Energy to track and offset Lolla’s carbon footprint by donating to the Indian Creek Landfill Gas Project in Illinois

I was amazed that sustainability was so thoroughly integrated into this festival and am already getting excited about what they, and I, will do next year!


Zero Waste Takeout

Sometimes you just want to sit on your couch and eat your favorite Thai food while watching Arrested Development. Unfortunately, a delivery of Thai would include many plastic containers, plastic forks, napkins, menus, a brown paper bag, a plastic bag over that, and a printed receipt.

It is important to remember that many cities, including New York City, do not actually recycle to-go containers contrary to what many think. So with a little bit of effort  including a phone call, three mason jars, and a little walking, I had my Thai food sans waste and guilt!

The Steps to Zero Waste Take-out:

  1. Pick your restaurant
  2. Call ahead… “I want to come in and get food for pickup, is it okay if I bring my own containers?” If yes…
  3. Thank them profusely
  4. Plan what you are going to order. In my case it was two soups and some sticky rice
  5. Gather the necessary containers (3 ball jars for me)
  6. Head to the restaurant, order, and give them your containers
  7. Get your food, thank them for being so great and letting you bring containers, walk home, sit on couch, eat, laugh, ahhhhhhh