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From Rubble, Reusables: Eugene Benefits From Demolished Schools

Brian Bull

The phrase, “back to school” spurs many families to grab school supplies.  Some may reuse stuff from previous years - such as an old backpack or calculator - in order to save some money. 

School districts cut costs and practice sustainability by reusing materials and equipment gleaned from freshly-demolished schools.  KLCC’s Brian Bull has the story.

A dump truck rolls through a gate, headed towards a pile of rubble where the old Roosevelt Middle School in Eugene used to be.  Excavators and bulldozers scoop out dirt and old brush, in the shadow of the new Roosevelt school just a few hundred feet away.

Credit Brian Bull
The old Roosevelet Middle School this past July, in the stages of demolition.

Being a sustainable-conscious community, Eugene has long taken a proactive stance on not letting everything end up in a landfill.  Kerry Delf is a spokeswoman for Eugene School District 4-J.  She says the first thing the district does is find materials that can be salvaged and sent to other schools.

“So at Roosevelt for example, as I walked through hallways on its final days, I saw staff taking doorknobs off of the doors, removing shelving that could be put to good use in other buildings.  We have stacks of chairs in good condition.  Removed desks and tables and other materials that could be reused.  We have more than 30 schools that are always looking for good materials.” 

Credit Brian Bull
4-J Spokeswoman Kerry Delf at the site of the now-demolished Howard Elementary School.

Delf is standing on the site of another school demolition, Howard Elementary.  A road grader drives across the spot where the old school used to stand, towards the new one that opens this fall.  Delf says salvaged materials are also auctioned off or offered to private and charter schools.

“Not everything can be salvaged, but the district works to find a home quickly for materials that we can. The school district also invites non-profit agencies to come and see what’s available to them.  BRING Recycling gathers a lot of materials for reuse in our community, so we expect that some of these materials that used to live in the school will now wind up in residents’ homes.” 

In Springfield, BRING Recycling’s executive director, Carolyn Stein, opens a large storage building to reveal some of their salvaged materials from the school district.

“These are woodshop workbenches that came out of Roosevelt Middle school.  They’re pretty fantastic.  They have this 2-inch thick wood top, with the vise and metal lockers at the bottom to hold tools and I think you can probably even get some carved initials of some kid from 1980 on here.” 

Stein says reusing materials, fixtures, and appliances is a better practice than recycling.  She says for example, it takes time and energy to melt down a steel sink and recast it, versus rescuing one from the wrecking ball and handing it off to a new home.

Credit Brian Bull
A stack of steel sinks donated to BRING Recycling.

“People from my grandparents’ generation were using everything that they could, until its useful life was over.  And then I think the pendulum swung back again after several years of disposable items.  You have these materials that already made, to recycle them would reduce their value in some way, where as you reuse them in their current form, you save all that energy.”

That largely jibes with what the EPA and other environmental agencies are saying.  In one hypothetical example, Lane County’s Public Works Division says reuse and recycling can reduce landfill costs by 35 percent. 

Salvaged materials can also just help another community member rebound from a rough experience.

“It was the exact same week that we caught the place on fire, so it just was God’s timing!”

Marshall Eck is the food services director for the Eugene mission.  A fire gutted his kitchen last June, causing $300,000 in damage. This all happened during Roosevelt Middle School’s demolition.  Walking past a volunteer hosing off serving trays, Eck shows off some high-end, commercial grade coolers, which were donated by 4-J, along with some grills and a hot dog roller. 

Credit Brian Bull
Marshall Eck with the Hobart coolers he received from the Eugene School District 4-J last June. They were removed from the old Roosevelt Middle School prior to its demolition.

“It’s new in my world, that’s for sure.  Typically you think a school district, and you think there’s all these hoops, jumps, and everything you’d have to do to even get that equipment.  You would assume that it’d just be probably discarded in a scrap yard.” 

Eck says what the Eugene mission won’t use – like that hot dog roller – can be sold, with funds going towards his organization’s efforts to feed the homeless. 

Reuse advocates hope contractors and building operators alike take the time to assess what’s salvageable before knocking down a structure.  They say it saves money, lessens landfill waste, and can benefit those who may not be able to afford their own materials or appliances.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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