As a newly minted PhD in mechanical engineering, Dirk Wassink ’88 was feeling nervous.
“Much of my research was related to new materials — composites, like ceramics mixed with plastics—that might extend the wear of a machine but are very difficult to recycle,” Wassink said. “I kept asking myself, ‘What’s going to happen to all these materials when they do wear out?’”
Dissatisfied, between jobs, he hired on as a manual laborer at Second Use Building Materials, a Seattle company that salvages used building materials and sells them to the public. He remembers his first week there:
“There I was, lifting a board, a door, a cabinet, and I thought, ‘Because I’m doing this, this stuff isn’t going into a trash truck. It’s being saved, and somebody else is going to put it to a new use.’ On a visceral level I felt involved with a value I could connect with. It felt more satisfying than any work I’d ever done.”
Ten years later Wassink is one of three company owners. From its inception, Second Use Building Materials has focused on residential, non-structural salvage. Its crews go into homes slated to be demolished or renovated and strip out valuable “fixtures and finishes”—everything from wood flooring to fireplace mantels and bathtubs. Homeowners save disposal fees and may be paid for items, depending on their resale value.
“We want it to make monetary sense for clients,” Wassink said. “But as awareness is growing about environmental responsibility, sometimes they’re willing to pay to do the right thing.”
In fact, in Seattle, he said, “the demand for complete solutions—called green demolition or deconstruction—has grown tremendously.”
Second Use has recently expanded into that demand. Wassink explained: “So now we’ll take all the materials we can for reuse, and the things we can’t use, we’ll find a way to recycle, so as little as possible goes to the landfill.”
Each month Second Use salvages about 100 tons of building materials. To help individuals see their contribution matters, Wassink has lately added an “environmental impact calculator” to the company’s Web site. It shows, for example, that reusing a kitchen sink saves enough energy to drive an SUV 150 miles.
“Real-life numbers help people think about what their choices mean,” he said.
Wassink prides himself on innovations like the calculator that make salvage more user-friendly. Another example: a virtual store on the Web site. Do-it-yourselfers, contractors, designers and artists can page through photos and descriptions of some 3,000 items, and also, on a project gallery page, see how other customers have put Second Use materials to creative new use. In the actual store there are even more items, and store staff make sure they’re neatly displayed and clearly labeled. He said it’s all part of helping people see reuse as not only possible and responsible, but creative and fun, too.
The visceral satisfaction Dirk Wassink felt in his first week at Second Use hasn’t faded. Rather, he said, its dimensions have grown:
“Every item we save has a story. With our database, we can print out for a customer a picture of the building an item came from and a description of how it was used. Then we can tell the story of what interesting way that customer reused it. We’re saving stories that have been and will be part of a community. What’s grown for me is an appreciation that it’s not just the materials, it’s what the materials mean that’s being saved.”
Visit Second Use Building Materials to learn more.
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