Almost 30 years ago, the Reynolds Metals Co. built a house made of recycled content. At the opening ceremony, David Reynolds said his company wanted to prove “there [are] vast new markets for recycled materials if we just look for them, and … even in sensitive areas such as residential housing, recycled products can look as good and behave as well as products made from virgin sources.”
Unfortunately, we still haven't met the first goal, but Reynolds succeeded beyond his wildest dreams with the second one.
Located in Richmond, Va., the house, called “the home that recycling built,” was built to also promote scrap aluminum uses in framing, joints, trusses, gutters and window frames as an alternative to wood and other materials. Other recycled content products in the house included aluminum siding, copper and cast iron pipes, masonry block and brick made from glass cullet, reclaimed nylon fiber carpet, interior paneling, asphalt shingles and subflooring made from recycled paper, and kitchen cabinets made from wood waste. And perhaps as a start to the tradition of sending Yankee trash to Virginia, New York City garbage was composted and used in the house's front yard.
Once the hoopla died down, the home that recycling built was forgotten. It became just another house: a nice looking, four bedroom tri-level in an affluent suburb that was occupied by several families over the years.
I had the chance to visit the house several years ago. The homeowner I chatted with had no idea that her house was made from recycled products. To her, it was just home. She remembered that the neighbors said there was some kind of fuss over the house when it was built, but they couldn't remember exactly what it was.
I showed her the brochure from the opening ceremony, with its pictures and descriptions of the products used to build the house. She recognized many of them but said the cabinets were gone. There was nothing wrong with them structurally, but they were dark brown and she just didn't like that color in her kitchen. The quality was there, but, like avocado green refrigerators, styles don't always age well.
The only flaw I saw in the house was that some of the bricks used in the front steps and the sidewalk had split, probably a result of pressure and the freeze-thaw cycle. The steps may need to be replaced, but the bricks used in the facing of the house looked fine.
And that's what happened to the first recycled content house.
The durability of the recycled content products proves that they are as good as new. The house itself has successfully provided shelter for more than a quarter of a century, yet nothing about it suggests that it's different from any other house in its subdivision.
Isn't this what we really want for recycling — for it to be a normal part of American life, something we take for granted? Ordinariness is an odd goal. When we were young and were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I bet that none of us said we wanted to be “ordinary.” We had other dreams. Yet, when recycling is just an ordinary part of our daily routines, then we won't need to worry about its future.
The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.
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