Extremely Low Impact: Forklift Sinks More Carbon Than It Spews


Bradley Guy
Courtesy: The Catholic University of America

By Elizabeth McGowan

Regular customers are fully aware that Community Forklift sells sinks—and plenty of them. But they likely don’t know that the nonprofit is actually a sizeable carbon sink itself because of its eco-friendly business model.

Capturing such a volume of heat-trapping gases means the Forklift is keeping significantly more air pollutants out of the atmosphere than it adds. And that relatively tiny carbon footprint is a welcome balm to a warming planet where carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are so abundant that the entire world’s climate is being altered.

And why else does the Forklift’s footprint matter? Well, in a nutshell, it’s solid, on-the-ground validation that keeping building materials out of landfills and incinerators isn’t just mushy, feel-good chatter. Instead, it’s irrefutable evidence that recycling at every level is environmentally and economically sound.

Bradley Guy, who has examined most every aspect of building deconstruction and reuse since the mid-1990s, is the brave soul who relished delving into the laborious, spreadsheet-heavy research at the Forklift in 2011. By 2012, he and a graduate student turned the numbers they collected into a preliminary study with the title, “Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Assessment of Building Materials Reuse Services.” That academic mouthful merely means they measured the Forklift’s overall carbon impact.

Guy is an assistant professor at The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning, as well as an associate director for the university’s Center for Building Stewardship.

After crunching his data, Guy found that on an annual basis the Forklift prevented the emissions of the equivalent of 360 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That sounds impressive but it is perhaps more meaningful when applied practically. Here’s how those 360 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent translates. It’s the same as keeping 242 passenger vehicles off the road for a year. It’s also how much carbon dioxide is emitted annually by a traditional power plant providing electricity to 175 homes. Or put another way, it’s the amount of carbon stored by 300 acres of pine or fir forests.

“The reuse business is a hard one,” Guy said about why he undertook the study. “Most of the stores are nonprofits. This involves a lot of volunteers and you can sell the stuff for only so much. For me, this is about searching for additional tools, what I call value tools, to find extra income. It’s a way of potentially monetizing the value of an environmental benefit.”

One value tool his study uncovered is the moneymaking potential of being a carbon sink, or what Guy calls the “carbon dioxide avoidance benefit.” Reuse stores such as the Forklift could play their green status to an advantage by earning dollars in the existing voluntary carbon offset market. That is, as part of a far-reaching greenhouse gas balancing act, businesses or individuals with excess emissions could pay reuse stores that spew so little carbon. In addition, places such as the Forklift could benefit financially if the U.S. Congress ever crafts a federal carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system centered on greenhouse gases.

“I didn’t have any preconceptions going into this study,” said Guy, founder of the Building Materials Reuse Association, a trade organization for Forklift-like enterprises. “I’m sort of a gadfly. Wherever I’ve lived, looking up reuse stores and somehow becoming involved with them has been a vocation.

“The inside joke has always been that reuse stores should be able to make a note on each receipt reading ‘By making this purchase you have avoided so many tons of emissions.’ This study is getting at that.”

Brad on roof

Bradley Guy removes metal roofing from a barn in Poolesville, Md., that was being taken down to make way for a housing development. Metal roofing, barn siding and some beams from the barn will be recycled into “Harvest Home,” which is Team Capitol DC’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013. The Catholic University of America, George Washington University and American University are collaborating on the project.
Courtesy: Bradley Guy

His examination of the Forklift wasn’t as simple as plugging known figures into one-size-fits all chart. It was much more intense and tedious process.

First he had to design a questionnaire for Forklift customers. For two summer weeks, he stood near the loading dock asking shoppers how far they had driven, what type of vehicle they drove, if they had also made a donation that day, what they had purchased and how exactly they would be using the materials they bought. Answers to that last question proved to Guy that customers were actually substituting what they had purchased for new materials they could have bought at a big-box store.

Then, because the Forklift lacks a uniform inventory tracking system, he pored over donor records and at least 8,000 handwritten tickets written up by the Forklift sales staff. Each item was coded and entered in a spreadsheet that included prices. From that, he was able to extrapolate how many doors, windows, appliances, 2-by-4 boards, tools and other materials exit the 34,000-square foot Edmonston warehouse annually.

But knowing the amount and monetary value of each item wasn’t enough. One of the trickier parts involved reviewing numbers from varying economic sectors to match up the greenhouse gas emissions involved in the initial production of the building materials donated to the Forklift. An economic input-output estimator developed by Carnegie Mellon University came in handy for that. The magic with reuse is that those production emissions are avoided the second time around.

To round out the footprint calculations, Guy used models from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to figure out how much carbon Forklift employees expelled commuting to work, as well as what the nonprofit discharged to fuel the trucks that pick up donations and to power, heat and cool its building. The Forklift scored extra points for purchasing 100 percent of its electricity from Wind Power via Clean Currents. He also computed how the Forklift disposed of its solid waste and recycling.

Guy-Holsinger-Final.pdfGuy’s math showed that picking up donations around the metropolitan Washington, D.C. region in a diesel-fueled box truck is by far the nonprofit’s “dirtiest” activity. That accounts for close to 45 percent of the annual 489 metric tons of greenhouse gases produced by Forklift operations.

“That just begs the question about how you reduce those emissions if you want to go as far as you can with the net benefit,” Guy said. “You could just not have pickups, or you could have satellite drop-off sites. But the questions become, is that viable and how would you man those mini-drop-offs?”

Still, he noted that the big-picture arithmetic reveals that the minus of the energy-intensive pickup system is outweighed by the pluses of making surplus and salvage building materials available to the local community and being diligent about recycling every ounce of scrap metal. That combination, he added, is a winner because of the overall net environmental benefit.

Guy’s research indicated that customers traveled an average of 17 miles one-way to reach the Forklift.

“That’s not that far and it indicates how a reuse store is all about local purchasing and the local economy,” he said, adding that a robust reuse industry could likely thrive with such stores located every 40 or so miles apart. “This is really important because it shows that local communities are not exporting ‘waste’ and they are not importing lumber from Canada. Reuse is proof of a local, closed-loop system.”

Forklift customers aren’t soiling their own nests, he said, because they are buying their neighbors’ stuff that was rescued from an untimely death at the dump or in an incinerator.

“Basically, you’re supporting your local community,” Guy concluded. “In a way, you’re being more virtuous, so you should buy as much as you need.”