Palo Alto’s ‘deconstruction’ ordinance will require reuse, recycling of building materials

Aug. 23, 2019, 12:30 a.m.

As part of an ongoing effort to reduce waste in Palo Alto, the city will ban contractors from demolishing entire buildings by July 2020. The goal is for building materials to be reused or recycled, so workers will have to disassemble structures instead of wrecking buildings. The environmentally-friendly policy will supplement incoming plastic bans in Palo Alto, with plastic meat and produce bags also set to be banned in July 2020, and other plastic foodware to be banned in January of that year.

Two of the largest components of landfill waste are food waste and construction and demolition (C&D) related materials. C&D materials represent more than 40% of Palo Alto debris that gets disposed in landfills, according to an estimate from the city’s Public Works Department.

Since 2016, one-fourth of whole houses that were taken down in Palo Alto were deconstructed instead of demolished. This means workers were required to disassemble structures so materials could be recycled. The new policy intends to bring the successes of deconstruction to a city-wide scale. The ordinance will impact approximately 114 projects annually, according to a City Council Staff Report

Traditional demolition lasts a few days, requires a crew of two or three people and costs $8 to $12 per square foot. On the other hand, systematically disassembling structures requires 10-15 days to complete and a crew of four to eight people, with costs ranging from $22 to $34 per square foot.

Palo Alto’s Zero Waste Plan was adopted in 2007. In 2016, the City Council adopted a goal of diverting 95% of materials from landfills by 2030 as part of its Sustainability/Climate Action Plan (SCAP). 

According to the Zero Waste Plan, “Deconstruction and Source Separation of Construction Materials” is a short-term program meant to “salvage/reuse to highest extent possible,” as well as increase “the amount and quality of recyclable materials for all construction and demolition projects.” 

Long-term programs involving deconstruction include creating a “Building Materials Reuse Center” to resell salvaged building materials. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), deconstructing buildings results in economic benefits, including “employment and economic activities in recycling industries.” The EPA’s 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report showed that the recycling of Construction and Deconstruction (C&D) materials created 230,000 jobs in 2007.

Portland adopted a similar law in 2016 and the expansion and adaption of the deconstruction industry “translates to more jobs and availability of more material.”

The Zero Waste Plan also tackles plastic pollution by banning all single-use plastics starting in 2020. Environmental activists and many residents disagree with the phasing of the ban. 

“While getting rid of plastic is really good for the marine environment, it doesn’t go far enough,” Miriam Gordon, program and policy director for the nonprofit organization UPSTREAM, said during a city council meeting. “We need to focus on reducing all of our disposable foodware.”

Chris Tan ’21, a member of Students for a Sustainable Stanford, said he does not believe the ban will significantly impact student life at Stanford because it does not apply to on-campus food service establishments. He also raised some doubts about the ban’s impacts. 

“To be clear, I do support it, but I think it places additional burdens on already marginalized communities, particularly for low-income residents and people with disabilities, without changing underlying structures that enable corporations to pollute the environment and exploit it for resources,” Tan wrote in an email to The Daily. 

He called for laws that are “environmentally just.”

According to the EPA, “Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people … with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” 

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Chris Tan.

Contact Ani Tonoyan at ani2003tonoyan ‘at’

Ani was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.

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