Why burning a two-by-four is a stupid act

Everything about Bob Sawatsky’s company — including him — seemed basic and straightforward as I walked into the warehouse he calls ReUze Building Centre on Birchmount Road, just south of Lawrence Avenue in Toronto.


The company’s logo, in buttercup yellow and cobalt blue, was as unpretentious and declaratory as work-a-day blue jeans. The warehouse was just one, big, 900-square-metre, cementblock space. The inside was filled with exactly what the logo promised: stuff rescued from building demolitions.


A hood for your stove you want? There was one for $9. A toilet: $45. A door: $15. A complete kitchen, including cupboards, counter top, sink, and taps: $250. Even a lecture podium: $35.


And there was Bob Sawatsky, 45-years-old, big, boyish, almost as tow-headed as he would have been at ten, and — and this is what made my first impressions so inadequate — a person for whom what’s around the next corner has never lost its allure.


When he started the business in 1992, « We were the first or second in Ontario,’’ he said. « In all of Canada, there were only four or five; now, there are upwards of 60.’’


There have always been salvage yards selling scrap lumber and fixtures from demolished buildings. What makes Sawatsky and those like him different is that they have raised the practice several notches. They take the time, and make the effort, to retrieve a wider range of materials and to search out those of better quality.


He had 55,000 people go through his centre last year, « and about 25 per cent bought something.’’ He has six full-time staff and this year he expects revenues « will come close to $500,000.’’


Sawatsky leapt, or more aptly, was pushed, from a different world on his way to ReUze. He was one of the producers of CBC’s Heartland, the TV show featuring Sylvia Tyson. When the show was dropped — in order, he says, to save money that would pay for introduction of The Journal — he quit showbiz entirely to work as a carpenter. Then he got into renovation contracting where he discovered « a whole pile of reusable materials were being thrown out.’’ Then he turned to consulting on sustainable practices. And finally, he opened ReUze.


Now, with the encouragement of Environment Canada, he’s busily involved in  the creation of a Used Buildings Materials Association which will have its inaugural convention next month.


An association will give opportunity and political muscle to centres such as his. Already his energies are coalescing around halting the wanton scrapping of materials so vastly greater quantities can be diverted to the reuse market. « The potential for growth in our business is much more than huge,’’ he says.


« Virtually all the construction and demolition waste from the Toronto area goes to the United States, mostly to private landfill sites in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York State.’’ There it is sorted by machines with 500-1000 tonne a day capacity and combustible material is shipped to power plants that burn it to generate electricity.


« From an environmental point of view it’s stupid.’’


And then he turns to a subject that is fascinatingly complex: « Think about embodied energy,’’ he says.


Think about the amount of energy represented by a piece of two-by-four lumber in the wall of a house — a tree was cut, hauled to a mill, cut into two-by-fours, shipped to a lumber yard, transported to a construction site, and incorporated  into the house. « That’s what we burn. That’s what we have to replace.’’


When the City of Barrie embarked on its program to encourage residents to swap their five-gallon (22.75-litre) toilets for six-litre, Sawatsky offered to buy the old toilets and retrofit them for resale so they would use only about three gallons. The city refused. Replacing them was a conservation measure designed to save water. It pulverized them for roadbed material.


« Think about how many BTUs go into the manufacture of a new toilet,’’ Sawatsky says. « It’s enormous. It takes huge amounts of heat.’’ So where is the balance between water conservation and energy consumption.


It’s a complicated calculation. « It would take Methuselah to figure out where it shakes down in the end,’’ he says. But the mere fact that he is thinking about embodied energy, and that he will get the new association interested, is terrific.

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