Thanks to Build It Green, New Yorkers can add to the eco-trio of “reduce, reuse and recycle” a fourth fundamental in waste management: restore. Sponsored by the Community Environmental Center, Build It Green (BIG) is a nonprofit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials—the same kinds of construction and demolition materials that account for roughly 60 percent of the city’s wastestream. Although large ReStores have been the province of environmentally minded cities like Portland and Berkeley for several years, they are starting to appear in greater numbers throughout the country and Astoria’s BIG is New York City’s 17,500-square foot bid against our own bulging landfills. Precisely because BIG is in New York rather than the Pacific Northwest, salvaged materials range from the run-of-the-mill—porcelain sinks, kitchen cabinets and other co-op construction leftovers—to the theatrical—hardwood planks reclaimed from a worn Broadway stage—to the fabulous—rolls of hot pink carpet discarded after serving the well—and high-heeled at a recent Victoria’s Secret event. Customers, be they contractors or consumers, won’t necessarily know they are perusing urinals collected after an Ethan Hawke film shoot or gold-glittered plywood sheets saved from a Kanye West set, and they won’t necessarily care. Low-cost durable goods are desirable and BIG is proof that consciousness can overshadow celebrity.
For the last year and half, New Yorkers have been making the trek to 3-17 26th Avenue in Queens for a variety of reasons: a desire to protect the natural environment, a longing to lay their hands on outsized art supplies, the chance to save the green lining in their wallets if not their streets. Prices, set around 50 percent of retail, appeal to professional builders as well those who fashion themselves as HGTV DIYers.
This month, in addition to discovering $8 looms labeled encouragingly by BIG staff as “decorative and functional,” it was possible to stumble upon a side-by-side stainless steel Sub-Zero freezer going for $4,750 rather than its $7,848 list price. And, operating like a typical discount retail outlet, black-and-white signs taped near the cashier area announce, “All merchandise is sold on an ‘as is’ basis” and “All merchandise can be returned within 14 days for store credit.”
Despite limited resources and the sometimes rough-and-ready condition of the inventory, the organization brings an information—and communications-technology acumen to its work. During any given week, staff post six to ten items on Craigslist, angling to move unusual as well as space-hoarding items acquired through donations.
BIG’s website (http://www.bignyc.org/) is also undergoing a redesign to accommodate potential volunteers and present a more up-to-date list of available materials. Currently, customer queries—a telephone caller looking for 2×6 boards or a walk-in customer in search of plumbing insulation—are fielded manually. The three staff each rely on their knowledge of what’s on-hand, sometimes hoofing it around the warehouse to see if they can locate a particular piece of wood trim or a light fixture. Once the new site is launched, would-be buyers will be able to click through a digital run-down of BIG’s mercurial stock.
As effective as BIG has been in establishing itself as an ecological holding pen for the still-usable, the not-for-profit’s capacity to provide increased access to salvageable materials would increase significantly if it had an affordable space, the support of government policies and a more extensive pick-up service. Right now, the organization occupies a privately owned warehouse that carries with it a typically high NYC rent. Also, although BIG has received an Empire State Development Grant, city and state legislators have done little to create incentives for construction companies to do anything but dump their leftovers. Some individual demolition contractors, recognizing how much waste is produced each time they dismantle a building, seek out BIG. More often, though, contractors accept the status quo: old materials are heaved into dumpsters and carried out of sight, clearing the way for new construction.
Even when contractors or individual homeowners contact BIG, limited transportation vehicles and crews make it difficult to respond to high-speed requests. Calls come in notifying BIG that materials are available for the taking but the durable goods must be picked up immediately or they are usually garbage-bound. If a last-minute call involves furniture, BIG typically sends the request to Housing Works or Goodwill, but if building materials are the focus then a referral is not possible. For now, BIG is the only “ReStore” in town.
Since it opened in February 2005, BIG has sold 300 tons of materials—keeping 200,000 pounds of appliances, neon signs, solid wood doors and other perfectly usable materials out of landfills. “An atom really,” says Nate deVelder, the organization’s IT, media, and development coordinator, “compared to how much waste is produced.”
Still, it’s a start.
Shelley Pasnik is a senior researcher at the Center for Children and Technology and the independent producer of The PBS Parents Guide to Children and Media.