As one of the nation’s major hubs for automotive and manufacturing industry, the Great Lakes region has a long legacy of urban construction, structural neglect and demolition of abandoned buildings—a damaging cycle that Michigan State University is addressing both on campus and across the state.
“The processes of allowing private land owners to build, use and then abandon structures is leaving our communities with the huge responsibility to remove unwanted buildings, whether they be residential, commercial or industrial,” said Rex LaMore, director at MSU’s Center for Economic and Community Development, “Not only does this put a financial strain on already strapped communities, but it allows usable waste materials to end up in the landfill rather than recycled onto another project.”
LaMore’s research, coined “domicology,” examines the cycle of structural abandonment in order to identify tools, models, policies and programs that support a more functional and sustainable system of community construction. “We’re trying to understand how we can end the process of abandonment so that it doesn’t leave communities with this social, environmental and economic burden,” said LaMore, “But we’re also studying what we can do with existing abandonment—specifically, the materials that can be gathered from abandoned structures.”
Using Muskegon, Michigan as a pilot test site, LaMore’s team is conducting a feasibility study to examine more sustainable options for managing abandoned properties. Rather than opting for demolition, where most materials are sent to the landfill, structures would be deconstructed for reuse and diverted from the landfill.
“The Midwest has a number of underutilized ports that could be used as central locations to gather and sort deconstructed materials of abandoned structures from surrounding communities,” said LaMore, “Muskegon is a great test site because it has an underutilized port and is a central location for materials from around the state.”
The feasibility study aims to answer big questions about domicology’s proposed deconstruction process: What kind of materials can be gathered? How much material can one site take in? What are the costs of shipping the materials? Once sorted, how can the materials be repurposed or sold? The answers to these questions could help drive an incentive for domicology by demonstrating that the new process has both environmental and economic value to consumers.
Back on campus, the MSU Recycling Center and Surplus Store is proving that this process works—and it’s profitable. “We’re looking to expand our role in campus construction projects by developing a more sustainable process,” said Kris Jolley, director at MSU’s Surplus Store and Recycling Center, “We’ve diverted 60 percent of the volume of construction waste through our pilot of the 1855 Place project, saving $46,000 in landfill costs and diverting 216 tons of waste from the landfill.”
Included in those diverted materials are cardboard, paper, plastic, metal, concrete, organic waste and now wood, which were deconstructed, gathered and sorted at the MSU Recycling Center. “Up until now, wood was our biggest challenge because it’s generally painted, stained or treated, meaning we can’t do anything but resell it,” said Jolley, “Once we put it for sale at the Surplus Store, people were buying it really fast, so we know there’s a market for deconstructed material, even if it isn’t in perfect condition. We’ve increased our wood diversion by 10-20 percent just through those sales.”
For LaMore, it’s essential for MSU to demonstrate leadership in these systems of deconstruction and purchase of recycled materials on campus so that the university can act as a model for other communities. “The concept is very new, and has many obstacles to success,” said LaMore, “It’s absolutely critical that we use our intellectual capacity and research abilities to address these issues and then share it with others to create widespread awareness.”