Recycling Building Materials: Historic buildings win the day.

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This article has been written by Alex Maccioni. Alex is one of the founders of JunkWize, a London rubbish clearance company that aims to recycle as much rubbish as possible.

Homes built before the 1950s are almost invariably better suited to the modern desire for a circular economy than homes built since then. My colleagues and I have come to this surprising conclusion after two years working in the waste and recycling sector in London. This point has been proven time and time again when my company has been called upon to remove all sorts of building waste from homes across the capital. The old houses end up providing us with a veritable bounty of quality items that can cleaned, sold and reused with a minimum of fuss. With new houses, though, this is simply not the case. Cheap materials, dense concrete and undesirable designs make sure that landfill is the primary destination for an unreasonable amount of what’s collected from these properties.

If we take a simple look at the building materials being used in both then it is quite clear why this is the case. Let’s take a typical Victorian terrace house – the sort found across the United Kingdom – as being a good example of an old house. It is immediately clear that many of the materials are of real quality; clay bricks, slates, ceramic tiles, wooden framed windows, brass door furniture and wooden floorboards. Although we are waste removal specialists, the reality is that the material we collect from houses like these is not ‘waste’ at all. In fact, it is a valuable commodity and it can be brushed up and reused without much trouble at all.

Taken by Charles Clegg, unedited, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

The wooden sash windows present in old homes can last for well over 150 years assuming that they receive a half decent amount of care. Modern PVC ones struggle to last for more than 20 years before they change colour and become warped or brittle. The designs present in old homes also have a timeless appeal, and as such people are happy to recycle them. A basic enamelled steel bathtub will always be preferable to the modern buyer over a vernacular avocado green plastic one. As people are willing to pay for this old quality, there is a financial incentive for owners to sell their possessions as opposed to scrapping them.

Compare this sensible method of building with the modern one that has been in existence en masse since the 1950’s. Here we see building methods and materials being used on a massive scale to fulfil short-term political targets regarding housing numbers. A classic example of this can be seen in the tower blocks that stand tall in our cities. Made up of concrete, next to nothing can be salvaged from their rock hard carcasses. As these blocks provided people with unpopular and cramped living conditions, many are demolished every year. A large chunk of this rubble goes to landfill, although some of it can be crushed and reused for industrial scale building projects.

Taken by Graeme Maclean, unedited, Attribution 2.0 Generic

Even the comparatively Edenic 1960s semi-detached homes are stuffed full of plasterboard (a material used in most new builds today). Since plasterboard contains gypsum, when it is left with biodegradable waste in landfill, it can produce hazardous toxic hydrogen sulphide gas. The problem is that that plasterboard is weak and easily damaged and it is because of this that it is hard to encourage the recycling of it. Compare that to recycling Victorian wooden panelling or a brass lion door knocker; because both of these are well made, hardy and desirable objects people queue down the street to get hold of them.

A ‘circular economy’ is a much talked about concept with all sorts of long winded definitions, but in truth it’s quite simple. The phrase should be used when an economy re-appropriates as much of its waste that it feasibly can at a given time. It is clear from our experiences that our forefathers were a great deal more adept at being able to encourage this than we are at this present time.