As the construction and demolition (C&D) markets continue to expand across the nation, so do the issues facing the recycling of the materials used within the industry. According to the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association, more than 583 million tons of C&D debris was generated in 2015. Of that, wood waste makes up about 40 percent of the infeed to mixed C&D recycling facilities.

As Marc Spiegel, co-founder of Rubicon and head of C&D Recycling Solutions, Rubicon said, “Companies that own landfills continue to fill them up instead of recycling material. Accordingly, much of the volume that could go for beneficial use is being landfilled. If this material was aggregated, markets would likely improve dramatically.”

As Spiegel explained, the lack of dedicated C&D material at recycling facilities means that each commodity must have its own open top container to help prevent cross-contamination and improve separation. 

“This can significantly raise the hauling costs and account for additional hauls,” Spiegel said. “The low value of the commodities captured means that recycling could cost more than taking the material to the landfill. This is an issue facing the entire recycling industry, not only the construction and demolition segment. Landfill owners want communities to throw things away as opposed to recycling them.” 

Divya Natarajan, senior consultant at Paladino and Company, which is a leading sustainability consulting firm that works with GCs, architects, owners and developers nationwide on projects ranging from typical 5/1 mixed-use multifamily projects to high aspiration commercial towers and master plans, said one of the biggest issues of concern facing the C&D industry is often rooted in training and knowledge of what is available in the market. 

“We’ve received calls from desperate construction managers who want to comply with waste regulations and certification requirements, but honestly have no idea where to start,” Natarajan said. “High turnover in the industry exacerbates this issue as institutional knowledge is lost with each regrettable turnover.”

Additionally, recycling standards and access to the waste vendors that perform recycling to those recycling standards can be spotty. That’s why Natarajan says there needs to be a commitment from the major general contractors to significantly reduce waste and responsibly dispose of it, if the industry is going to benefit from enough market demand to drive improvements in recycling processes.

“Recyclable quality can be location-specific,” Natarajan says. “We see high quality recyclables in the Pacific Northwest, where sustainability is part of the local ethos, however other parts of the country are still developing their local knowledge about recyclability. When ‘good’ and ‘bad’ recyclables are combined, it can wreak havoc on the process.” 

Ongoing Evolution

There have been some important changes to C&D recycling in recent years. Most notably, as society becomes more environmentally conscious, it is essential that construction companies can demonstrate the impact of their activities and the steps they are taking to reduce their environmental impact. 

“There is also a greater demand for accountability, with more clients demanding waste audits and specific information about where waste is taken and how it is being used,” Natarajan said. 

Recycling is something that the median person wants. In fact, as Spiegel explained, the number of building and renovation projects that focus on recycling continues to increase. 

“Companies would prefer to do something positive with the outputs rather than fill a hole,” Spiegel said. “LEED certification efforts also have improved the sustainability development and design of buildings and the increased demand for recycling, but the markets still have tremendous growth potential for many of the materials generated.” 

Challenges Aplenty

There are a myriad of challenges that C&D players face as it relates to recycling. As with all recycling – and construction and demolition is no different – there is an “ease of use” challenge in the industry when you can just toss something in a dumpster and forget about it. 

The impact that trash has on the environment, on a landfill and on the planet will be detrimental in the long term if we don’t shift our thinking away from landfill models.

According to Spiegel, the construction and demolition industry faces challenges because of the value of some materials, and then the additional challenge of finding buyers for the commodities that are collected. 

“In some spaces, an incomplete puzzle is being put together,” Spiegel said. “We believe that data can help put the puzzle together and improve this market.”

Recycling is a well-understood concept but can be difficult to put into practice. Commingled recycle bins are the most common way construction sites collect waste, but this significantly degrades the quality of recyclables. For example, as Natarajan explained, glass gets broken, extra lengths of wood or metal get contaminated with dust, and drywall disintegrates if not stored properly. This prevents construction materials from being reused to their highest potential. 

Additionally, each construction site only generates a small amount of a particular material at a time, which makes it difficult for vendors to collect waste in significant quantities unless it is aggregated on site. 

“This issue is further aggravated in dense urban areas like New York City, where there is no space onsite to house segregated waste systems or containers for more than a day or two, necessitating vendors to collect waste from multiple sites at a time,” Natarajan said.

Eddy Martinez, marketing director at A List Builders said construction and demolition material and debris recycling is currently a burden on contractors because it costs more, therefore they find that many companies don’t go out of their way to recycle unless it is a requirement.

Cities such as Santa Monica require a deposit from contractors that is only returned after a contractor shows them proof that they sent all debris through a recycling facility before it is sent to the dump. 

“This places a burden on the contractor because it is a significant fee depending on the size of the project and is only returned after final inspection is completed,” Martinez said.

Martinez said that the main reasons for not recycling in projects where it is not a requirement are:

•Significantly higher price from regular roll-off dumpster services to comparable recycled roll-off dumpster services

•Shortage of dumpster companies that provide small recyclable dumpsters (most companies only provide 40-yard bins or 5-gallon bins for recycling, no in between sizes)

•Short duration of time allotted with dumpster (most dumpster companies only allow you to keep the dumpster one to two weeks before charging a daily limit, which limits the amount of time the dumpster can be used) 

Key Materials

There are specific materials that are more readily or easily recycled than others. For example, metal – especially steel – can be endlessly recyclable. 

“In fact, most structural steel is composed of up to 75 percent recycled material,” Natarajan said. “Similarly, concrete can be recycled easily, and its most common use is to be turned into gravel or road material.” 

On the other hand, one of the toughest materials to recycle effectively is drywall/gypsum board. This is because of its multiple components, issues in transport, and potential additives (older drywall may contain asbestos and other toxins). 

“When using gypsum as a soil amendment, paper, paint and other additives need to be removed and the quality of material assured,” Natarajan said. “Each new construction site generates about 12 percent of its drywall as waste, so this is a material that needs better solutions.”

As Spiegel further explained, “Metal continues to be the most easily recycled material in the construction and demolition space, and continues to have value in the market.” 

In addition, reclaimed wood from older buildings and developments continues to see value in the secondary market, being repurchased ‘as is’ for its character and history, and the feeling it gives the purchaser that they are helping the environment.” 

The two main products made from recycled C&D wood are mulch and compost, or biomass. For C&D biomass, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized it as a legitimate fuel that is clean enough to be exempted from its Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials rule. 

And according to the Asphalt Pavement Alliance, reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) can be recycled again and again; it never loses its value. It is estimated that recycling of asphalt pavements saves the American taxpayer more than $2.5 billion per year. It also saves thousands of acre-feet of landfill space each year.

Because of the challenges that emerge within the C&D recycling industry, regulations are necessary. “The market has not driven the C&D industry to meet the required recycling benchmarks, so the more proactive the industry is, the less regulated it will be,” Natarajan said. “Some global construction companies and businesses are required to report their waste and track their carbon/GHG impact of waste because they operate in areas of Europe where this is mandated. Most organizations do not track waste to the level that has consistently driven improvements in C&D – thus the regulations.”

Cities around the country have made a commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, which are reflected in their climate action plans and legislative agendas. Overall, Natarajan said the C&D industry should be prepared to respond to laws designed to increase recycling rates, improve recycling efficiency, and divert materials from landfills. 

“For example, Jared Polis, state governor of Colorado wants to make Colorado a recycling hub for the Rocky Mountain region,’ and has prescribed several recycling focused initiatives. Initiatives like those will be reflected in new laws,” Natarajan said. 

Experts agree that there will be increased regulation pushing for waste separation, which is the most effective way to use recyclables at their highest value and salvage more materials to be reused rather than downcycled. 

“As more cities and governments build waste separation into regulations, more waste can be rescued and there will be lesser need to for virgin materials,” Natarajan said.

On the Horizon

Spiegel said that many of the general contractors out there want to be environmentally friendly and want to work within recycling needs of communities. “In 2019, they will continue to look for alternative outlets for their metal, wood waste, cardboard, brick, drywall and concrete to try and fit into a circular economy model, and that’s exciting to be a leader in these efforts,” Spiegel said. 

Landfill costs are continuing to rise over 2017 levels and that trend will only increase in 2019. That’s why Spiegel said the construction and demolition industry will need to be creative in finding recycling solutions to not only stay ahead of landfill costs, but serve as good corporate citizens and map to new demands for sustainable and environmentally friendly recycling solutions.

“The last thing construction companies and contractors want is to explain to a developer why they chose to not do the right thing for the environment,” Spiegel said. “2019 will continue to show the value put on doing the right thing continues to skyrocket. Nobody wants a black eye because they still believe in doing things the same way as 30 and 40 years ago.”

Natarajan said C&D companies should be ready for increased public scrutiny. “The recycling trade issues with China and some high profile recycling fraud cases have heightened interest in the industry and bring added accountability,” Natarajan said. 

There also will be a spike in remodeling projects as the real estate industry adapts to high competition for development sites and investments and the job market stays strong in key markets.

“As a result, waste-to-energy will become more efficient and effective, along with higher standards for emissions from incineration systems,” Natarajan said. “There will be more facilities that will combine composting and biogas, helping to generate clean energy as well as improving soils.”