Community Forklift

Individual putting up frames

Trash from old buildings gets a second life—while creating jobs

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Imagine a bulldozer shattering a house and violently shoving it into a jagged pile of crumbling refuse. The force of this collision releases a spray of toxic dust into the air, which later settles on the surrounding neighborhood.

The crushed and tangled pieces from this demolished building will be buried in a landfill, where they will slowly decompose for centuries. It’s not a healthy image—for the surrounding communities or for the planet.

This type of demolition is the leading method of removing condemned or unwanted buildings from a city’s landscape. In fact, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, building debris comprises almost 40 percent of the country’s solid waste.

Fortunately, there is a less wasteful alternative to demolition: deconstruction. Workers carefully disassemble buildings so materials remain intact—separating hazardous parts from pieces that can be reused. And deconstruction creates more jobs than demolition, because multiple workers are needed to perform a variety of specialized tasks.

Since 2005, Community Forklift has promoted deconstruction in the Washington, DC, area. By collecting, donating, and reselling salvaged building materials and appliances, this nonprofit has diverted $12 million worth of building materials away from landfills since its founding.

“There’s so much [used] building material out there that there could be a reuse store for every Home Depot,” says marketing and outreach director Ruthie Mundell. “[Americans are] so proud of ourselves for recycling soda cans, but we need to be recycling houses, too, because [they’re] such a huge part of the waste stream.”

Community Forklift is a project of the DC-based nonprofit, Sustainable Community Initiatives (SCI), which runs job-training and community-improvement projects that benefit the environment.

About 12 years ago, the people behind SCI hired instructors to train local job seekers in deconstruction and won a bid to take apart some old cottages in DC. The deconstruction project turned a profit by selling the cottages’ recovered maple flooring, earning enough money to compensate the instructors and the trainees.

However, the trainees could not put their new skills to use, because DC had no outlets to sell salvaged materials from construction sites.

So SCI, along with a handful of other local environmental groups, founded Community Forklift to address this need. They didn’t go into the deconstruction business themselves, but rented a warehouse and hired employees to pick up donated cast-off materials from homes and construction sites.

“The concept of … building-material reuse just makes so much sense,” says Mundell. “Not only are we not sending things to the landfill, [but] more important than that is the fact that we’re reducing consumption and demand for virgin material. It’s really only the last few generations [that] we’ve become so wasteful.”

The founders chose the name “Community Forklift” because the organization lifts up the community by selling materials at 25 to 75 percent below their retail prices, lending or donating materials to local nonprofits, and through its HELP (spell this acronym out here) program, distributing items to needy families at no cost.

Last year, Community Forklift gave away nearly $50,000 worth of supplies. Contractors also get a lift as low-cost materials enable them to keep projects affordable. The Community Forklift warehouse itself also provides green jobs for 45 employees.

Community Forklift commonly receives donations that include kitchen cabinets, sinks, doors, windows, lumber, tools, and vintage furniture. Because it serves the bustling DC metro area, it also obtains many eccentric donations. Each year the Folklife Festival donates its banners, which are often reused as tarps. Recently, the Architects of the Capitol brought in a large amount of vintage ashtrays, which a local artist made a unique glass wall out of.

The warehouse also gets strange objects from production companies that pitch films to the Discovery Channel, ranging from a wooden jail cell to a pillar etched with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Community Forklift also paves the way for creative and exotic reuse projects: Last summer, a couple built a backyard gazebo out of old doors and window sashes. In addition, many of DC’s newer shops and restaurants contain vintage or unique items from the warehouse.

“[In some areas], every other business has used our materials to add some character to their space,” says Mundell. “It’s so fun to feel like we’re part of the fabric of the city now.”

Because 80 percent of customers hear about Community Forklift through a friend, the business hosts several events each year to showcase its merchandise while educating customers about the benefits of deconstruction and reuse.

In winter of 2013, Community Forklift won Green America’s $5,000 People and Planet Award, which goes to businesses that help their employees, communities, and the environment.