Otherwise destined for landfill – perfectly good material and a whole lot of money

The churn from office fit-outs is a huge waste of resources, with often perfectly good equipment and furniture tossed to landfill, at great cost. Now the Sydney Industrial Ecology Network, funded by a grant from the NSW Environment Protection Authority, has started a program to map a new pathway. First to get aboard is DEXUS.

The first full-scale green de-fit of a commercial building by the Sydney Industrial Ecology Network is underway, with Edge Environment and a range of stakeholders including the Better Buildings Partnership, DEXUS and the NSW government together trying to tackle the issue of “fit-out churn”.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority estimates that there are more than 2.5 million square metres of office fit-out material made redundant each year in Sydney, including metal and timber desks, chairs, partitions and computer equipment. It has also estimated that diverting as much of this from landfill as possible has the potential to return 3000 to 4000 tonnes of metals, timber, glass and plastics to the productive economy annually.

The Sydney Industrial Ecology Network Team – Better Buildings Partnership, Edge Environment and NSW EPA at the October workshop

Edge Environment in partnership with the BBP have so far held two workshops to establish the SIEN, with a workshop held most recently in mid-October to examine the opportunities for plasterboard, carpet and ceiling tiles.

  • Download the workshop presentation here.

The workshops have enabled a range of relationships to be developed with firms that may be able to use fit-out materials such as plasterboard and glass as an input for their own manufacturing.

And Edge Environment’s role is to establish the networks and ensure the program can develop into a viable system.

For instance Edge liaised with CSR to trial using some of the glass from the Governor Macquarie Tower de-fit in the manufacture of glass wool insulation. It’s possible more than 100 tonnes of glass could be removed.

There is also the possibility some of the plasterboard can be recycled, with a new firm in Minto producing a recycled product.

Edge will document the entire de-fit, as it attempts to find ways to direct the six key fit-out waste streams to better places than landfill.

The BBP also carried out a test project earlier this year at MLC Tower in collaboration with GPT, with social enterprise companies invited to undertake portions of the deconstruction works.

Research into office fit-out waste shows that reducing the amount going to landfill from churn is an opportunity to substantially reduce an estimated 260,000 tonnes of commercial and industrial operational, construction and demolition waste generated annually in the City of Sydney.

The BBP has prepared resources that outline the process of reducing the percentage of de-fit materials going to landfill.

The program for the Sydney Industrial Ecology Network includes:

  1. Commitment to fit-out waste diversion targets – large organisations commit to targets for diversion, interfacing with industry rating tools
  2. Further de-fit trials targeting maximum diversion of materials – demonstration projects that test and document processes that maximise diversion and illustrate economic, social and environmental benefits to all parties
  3. Creating a reuse showcase – design an integrated fit-out showcasing all  reused and re-purposed materials to show prospective tenants the high design possibilities of reuse
  4. Collate key resources and tools available in one place – collection of key resources on the topic to provide information for a Recyclers Directory and education modules for easy reference by exiting tenants, defit contractors and building owners
  5. Education materials fit-out / defit guide – collaborate with building owners and industry rating tools to provide best practice guidance for tenants on materials use, retention and recovery during fit-out and defit
  6. Procurement and processes – evolve defit contract clauses to incentivise and de-risk materials reuse and recycling and provide procedural guidance on best practice (e.g. staging of works, source separation, standard waste management plans and materials recovery reporting standards
  7. Facilitate material exchange –Develop an industry-accepted digital marketplace to facilitate the exchange and reuse of fit-out materials and re-gifting to those in need
  8. Education materials fit-out / defit guide , training materials for onsite use – denoting possibilities for all types of commercial office material
  9. Facilitate increase in furniture and material resale and reconditioning with social enterprise – increase current market capacity for furniture refurbishment and resale and establish training and development opportunities with social enterprises
  10. Product Stewardship information and action – analyse and encourage  product stewardship, understanding the different variants, providing timely information on existing product stewardship agreements
  11. Transfer stations- support industry to develop a hub close to Sydney CBD that can receive C&I waste overnight, undertake secondary sorting, aggregate and redistribute it to specialist re-processors
  12. Building demand for reused gypsum – analyse the environmental, social and economic benefits and specifications of recycled gypsum as an input for plasterboard manufacture In order to establish it at scale with existing reprocessing facilities
  13. Testing energy recovery from waste – undertake research to document the circumstances under which a range of unrecyclable materials can be used for energy recovery, especially MDF, laminates and timber derivative products

Photos are from the Sydney Industrial Ecology Network October workshop

First project

The first major project by the Sydney Industrial Ecology Network involves eight floors at the Dexus-owned Governor Macquarie Tower formerly occupied by the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet and already it reveals the opportunities and constraints around the concept of exchanging the traditional fit-out demolition model of “smash and trash” for one of re-using, repurposing, upcycling and recycling.

The research by the BBP shows that for every 1000 square metres of net lettable area, about 63 tonnes of waste is generated from fit-out churn. The tower has 10,000 sq m of net lettable area, and the contractor estimates there are 980 tonnes of de-fit materials in total, comprising 360 tonnes of mixed waste, 41 tonnes of carpet and underlay, 214 tonnes of gypsum board [plasterboard], 223 tonnes of concrete, 25 tonnes of ferrous metals and 111 tonnes of glass.

The environmental case for doing things in a greener way is sound, but so is the business case, it turns out.

With Sydney landfills charging $300 a tonne for waste disposal, the estimated 980 tonnes of material including furniture, glazing panels, ceiling tiles, plasterboard, timber panelling, catering equipment, carpet and cabinetry at the site would cost about $294,000 to dispose of via landfill.

And this is only eight floors of an office tower.

The materials the SIEN is looking to salvage include furniture, catering equipment, fridges, glass, timber panelling, plasterboard and carpet, and the first weekend of site availability saw a substantial amount of the loose furniture and fittings re-homed.

Edge Environment director Tom Davies said these are typically the first items to be landfilled as they need to be cleared quickly prior to any demolition work occurring. There are some furniture items that may traditionally be recycled, but only where the scrap metal content justifies it.


In a prime example of the multiple benefits of recycling office de-fit Buildings Alive, co-founded by Craig Roussac, which is moving to new premises, has been happy to take away what it could utilise.

Another organisation that has been removing and re-homing a substantial amount of the furniture and fixtures such as catering equipment is Good360, a social benefit business that specialises in receiving unwanted inventory from a range of sectors and redistributing them to charities and other social enterprises.

Franscois McHardy

Chief operating officer of Good360 Franscois McHardy estimated the organisation managed to salvage over 20 tonnes of goods for use by two charities, the WILD foundation, a new respite centre in Dungog, and the Exodus Foundation, which produces and distributes meals for disadvantaged families. There are also multiple truckloads of items being stored by Good360 that will be distributed across a number of other charities.

Contractor Demolition Plus, which is undertaking the works package for Dexus of stripping everything out, also assisted with the Good360 de-fit, has lent a truck and removalist trolleys to the team and is also helping expedite site access for inventory and removal of items.

Safety for volunteers

One of the major challenges for any of the potential takers is the need for appropriate security and safety induction paperwork. Good360 needed to ensure all volunteers and staff held White Cards and had undergone a proper building site induction prior to entering the site.

Logistics and losses that can’t be avoided

The project has already presented a few useful lessons for everyone involved. Firstly, the logistical issue of trying to reclaim tonnes of stuff in the extremely compacted timeframe of a demolition subcontractor makes it difficult to get an ideal outcome.

For example, there were two blast chillers [catering refrigeration] worth $30,000 each and other cabinet refrigeration that the Exodus Foundation could have used, but as the equipment was still operating despite the building being untenanted, specialist technicians would have been required to decommission them for removal.

Mr McHardy said the team still hope to somehow reclaim them, but technically the window of opportunity for loose items and furniture has closed and they may yet be scrapped.

Speaking with The Fifth Estate after his last truckload had departed from site, Mr McHardy said this kind of re-use of furniture and fit-out gives an opportunity for charities to upgrade their own fit-outs or resource new facilities, as WILD has done, or distribute direct to those they serve.

Need for a marketplace

What he would like to see the SIEN enable is a marketplace where designers and specifiers and others can “shop” for furniture, glazing panels, equipment and other elements of a fit-out.

Good360 has an e-commerce platform that its US counterpart has been using for the past 30 years that creates a similar venue to the collaborative consumptions sites such as Gumtree.

Mr McHardy said however, that for it to really function in terms of effective diversion of materials from landfill and effective supply lines to end users, there needs to be some adjusting in terms of when and how the repurposing team can access the space, take an inventory of items including photos, and upload them so the shoppers can express an interest before demolition and bump-out commences.

“We will be creating a piece of real estate within our site for charities or commercial property [stakeholders] to re-use, repurpose, downcycle or upcycle fit-out items and materials,” Mr McHardy said.

A system like this would mean trucks could turn up at the loading bay on the appointed day and take all the wanted items away.

That’s the challenge ahead. And it also means looking at some of the lease clauses such as “make good” or “settlement fees” and ensuring they allow for this kind of activity to take place.

“In the perfect universe, the landlord and project manager would know tenants are going months ahead of time, and at that point, we want access, to go in and catalogue items.”

“Everyone in the commercial de-fit sector has known for decades that [the majority] of commercial furniture goes to landfill,” Mr McHardy said.

“But before now there hasn’t been a way to connect the dots and prevent it.”

There are still some types of fit-out items that cannot currently be recycled by traditional means, such as laminate-covered chipboard used for many items of office furniture. The opportunity is for these to designers and specifiers to consider product stewardship factors including whether products can be recycled.

The challenges

Fixed work stations also have their challenges. While moveable and portable furniture can have multiple uses for charity groups or other firms and are relatively easy to move, fixed work stations require disassembly and reassembly at the end point, which Mr McHardy said is not currently standard practice.

The volume of items – thousands in this case – is too much for the traditional furniture re-homing charities to absorb, Mr McHardy said. And they typically don’t accept glazed panels.

“My vision is to create viable spin-off businesses using social benefit labour,” he said.

“Glass is one of the most expensive items in a fit-out. I would like to see it catalogued and sized, then go to a shed where it can be resold and designers can go shopping.”

Currently the majority of glass from de-fits if it is recycled at all is used in road base, Mr McHardy said.

The range of stakeholders who need to opt-in to the concept to really make it effective includes the landlord or owner at the front end, the building manager, the fit-out designers, the outgoing tenant, the builder that is undertaking the refurbishment and the subcontractors.

There are also a “whole lot of statutory boxes to be ticked”, including risk concerns, legalities, and privacy concerns around data and paperwork being removed from a site before outsiders step in.

“I am hoping the terms of leases can be changed so owners can step in sooner,” he said.

The builder is critical, and so is timing

The builder also is quite crucial, Mr McHardy explained, as they set the conditions and program timelines for the demolition subcontractor. Generally, time is of the essence, with demolition contractors sometimes up for hefty daily penalties of tens of thousands of dollars if they do not meet tight timeframes.

This means items are typically smashed and sent to landfill. The alternative is a period of preparation enabled by the owner and outgoing tenant that allows for a proper pre-demolition inventory to be taken and end users for the items recruited.

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  1. great idea and concept that needs to be instigated to avoid unnecessary waste, however time & money often dictate the pace at which the premises are stripped of redundant fitout ready for new works