Campus & Community

The three green ‘r’s: Reduce, reuse, recycle

6 min read

University clears out commercial spaces but throws almost nothing away

On a snowy Friday morning last week (Feb. 22), a truck pulled up in front of 90 Windom St., a two-story brick building on the site of Harvard’s new Allston Science Complex. The former commercial space is the last of the structures to be cleared before construction begins.

For an hour, contractors for Turner Construction Co. stacked the truck with interior doors. More usable material will be salvaged from the Windom Street building in the coming days, including nine pallets of ceiling tile grids.

Diverting doors and metal grid work from landfills is an example of sustainability in action. After all, “reuse” is high up in the familiar mantra of how to handle materials wisely. (You’ve seen the slogan: Reduce, reuse, recycle.) Salvaged materials from buildings on the science complex site — furniture, windows, cubicle partitions, and more — are donated to nonprofit institutions that can reuse them in Cambridge and elsewhere.

Last summer, demolition work began to prepare the Allston site for the new four-building science complex. But before one brick fell, Rob Gogan, Harvard’s recycling and waste manager, toured the former light industrial and office buildings and took away several truckloads of reusable material. (The University’s Recycling and Surplus Center at 175 N. Harvard St. in Allston last year distributed stockpiled items worth $2.5 million, including 10 tons of books.)

But large-scale demolition projects are too much for his operation to handle, Gogan said. So most of the reusable goods in the site’s buildings were audited — measured, photographed, and inventoried — by Institution Recycling Network (IRN).

The Concord, N.H., cooperative — already involved in 17 current or recent Harvard projects — specializes in recycling construction and demolition waste. They coordinate deliveries of surplus to nonprofits, taking anything useful out of a building, from bookcases and sofas to thermostats and water pumps.

IRN’s Allston audit documents were sent around to the three dozen charities the company deals with in 40-plus countries. “It’s [places] outside the country that have the greatest need and desire” for reusable goods, said engineer Norman C. Lamonde, Turner’s sustainability manager for the Allston project.

By June, IRN had identified almost 62 tons of reusable goods (some of it from other Boston-area sites) that interested one client: brand-new St. John’s University in Dodoma, Tanzania. Workers in Allston carefully packed seven shipping containers with office furniture, toilets, sinks, bathroom partitions, and other items. Each container, designed to be stacked on seagoing vessels, is the size of what a 10-wheeler hauls on the highway.

By September, the salvaged Allston goods were in place in Tanzania. “The timing of the delivery was excellent,” wrote St. John’s deputy vice chancellor John M. Ham in an e-mail. “Very little of what arrived was not put to use,” he said, especially in faculty offices and in a campus dispensary.

Most of the shipment to Tanzania came from one-time offices of public television’s WGBH on Western Avenue.

“It’s material that typically finds its way into a dumpster,” said Mark Berry, who manages IRN’s surplus program. But packing up and shipping salvage across the ocean is 20 to 30 percent cheaper than throwing it away – and more environmentally sound, he said. “As institutions and campuses look to get into the green movement, this is an easy solution.”

At the Allston site, what doesn’t get salvaged for reuse gets recycled. Acoustic ceiling tile, for instance – about 16 tons so far – gets stacked on pallets and shipped to a manufacturer of new tile in Georgia. Crushed concrete, mixed debris, metals, and wood – almost 8,000 tons so far – go to local processors.

Recycling a demolished building is regulated by state law: Massachusetts bans most construction and demolition debris from landfills. But even though recycling is the right thing to do, it still requires more energy than salvage does; recycled material has to be shred, cut, or ground to be useful.

On many levels, the salvage efforts at Allston “mean quite a bit,” including energy savings and wise management of solid waste, said Nathan Gauthier, assistant director of Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative, who visits the Allston site at least every two weeks.

As a bonus, he said, “our stuff has gone all over” the world: doors, desks, dividers, and other goods have been shipped to sites in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. Some is from Allston, but most comes from routine campus moves and renovations. (Gogan said Harvard was getting a shipment of pots, pans, surplus paint, and classroom supplies ready for the archdiocese of Port au Prince, Haiti.)

But most of the University’s salvaged materials are distributed locally. This month, about 2,300 pounds of cosmetics, shampoo, and soap recovered from Harvard dorms went to the family shelter of the Cambridge YWCA. Two hundred stackable chairs from a Harvard Graduate School of Design renovation were divided up and shipped to an arts center and a homeless shelter in Boston.

Beyond salvage, the Allston site itself follows sustainability requirements that have direct, local environmental impacts.

Gauthier pointed to IRN’s monthly snapshot of Allston demolition waste. As of January, more than 82.6 tons of material had been salvaged and another 10,970 tons recycled. That’s a reuse and recycling rate of 99 percent – and the equivalent so far of saving 4,920 barrels of oil.

At the Allston site, there are even bigger examples of reuse, at least for now: The buildings at 114 and 125 Western Ave. are still occupied while construction unfolds. Turner’s field offices are in 114 Western Ave., where old WGBH desks are still in place. Part of 125 Western Ave. – a former WGBH studio – was used to build a mockup of laboratory space envisioned for the science complex. “We’re utilizing these old buildings as best we can,” said Lamonde.

“Recycling these materials is a small but important part of our green efforts in Allston,” said Ken Johnson, senior project manager for Harvard’s Allston Development Group, the organization that oversees planning, design, and construction of Harvard’s Allston projects.

Harvard’s goal in Allston is to make the new academic buildings in the science complex meet strict environmental standards by aiming for LEED certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a detailed code for sustainable building design that assigns an environmental value to projects based on the image of precious metals. There are LEED rankings for silver, gold, and – the highest – platinum.

At the Allston complex, the buildings and the landscape around them will conform to a LEED Gold standard by including provisions for bicycle lanes, sustainable plantings, storm water runoff control, and reduced energy usage.

Harvard’s plan for Allston construction, said Gauthier, is also the first in the world to require a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as part of the permitting process.

Harvard is still preparing the Allston site for construction. (The first science complex building will be ready in 2011.) But sustainability is already the byword. Strict environmental requirements are in place for salvage, recycling, noise, low-dust gravel access roads, storm water runoff, erosion control, and diesel emissions.

Ultralow sulfur diesel fuel is required for machinery, along with filters to screen out diesel particulates. Said Gauthier, “There will be much better air quality than at a typical construction site.”