Powerful forces drive C&D recyclingClick to Enlarge

San Francisco’s rules for construction and demolition require companies to recycle or reuse at least 65 percent of materials generated from a job. Across the country in New Hampshire, activists are urging the legislature to rewrite the state’s recycling rules to ban all construction and demolition (C&D) materials from landfills. And in some states such as Connecticut, rules forbid trucking any materials, including C&D materials, for disposal in other states.

The situation presents an obstacle and an opportunity for an industry that, according to estimates, annually recycles hundreds of millions of tons of materials left behind by building and demolition projects. On one hand, the restrictions, including steadily increasing tipping fees on disposing of C&D debris encourage recycling. On the other, there are challenges finding uses for recycled materials, along with tighter rules about popular applications such as burning salvaged wood for fuel.

Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association, is confident that solutions will be found. “Recycling has always been part of demolition and construction,” he said. “We remain the largest source of recycling feedstock around the world, and we have been adding materials into the stream.”

Currently, recyclers make use of concrete, wood, sheetrock, plastics, shingles, glass, carpeting and metals such as rebar, wiring and flashing. Concrete, metals, wood and asphalt are especially recycle-ready. And Taylor said recycling the rest is quite feasible. “Simply put, in the right set of circumstances with the right market, you can recycle just about everything that comes out of a building,” he said.

C&D recycling and regulations

C&D recycling’s relationship with regulation is a benefit in many ways. For instance, rising tip fees encourage more recycling. The push toward green building, much of it propelled by government rules and incentives, also prompts recycling. Recycling is the most claimed credit under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED rating system for green building, according to William Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association in Eola, Illinois. “It’s probably the most economically feasible credit, and there’s a network of recycling facilities that make it feasible,” Turley said.

Cities that set goals for recycling predetermined percentages of municipal solid waste are also driving recycling of C&D materials. C&D materials rival major components of the municipal waste stream such as household garbage and lawn clippings, and cities that plan to divert 75 percent or more of their waste from landfills can’t afford to ignore C&D.

“One of those major materials is C&D steel, wood and concrete and those kinds of things have value and they need to treat them differently,” noted Anne Nicklin, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association in Chicago.

Nicklin’s organization seeks to have materials re-used rather than recycled, for instance, employing a board as a board rather than burning it to generate energy. But recycling uses abound for wood as well as other components of the stream.

Concrete is commonly ground and used as aggregate to fill roadbeds under construction. Asphalt shingles can likewise be recycled as new paving. Steel reinforcing bars are removed from concrete and sent off to be turned into automobiles, appliances and new rebar. These sorts of uses generally avoid the regulatory burdens that are increasingly placed on burning wood for fuel, which is one of the more common uses of C&D materials.

Most C&D recycling regulation is handled by states, where a patchwork of rules exists. Some states present significant burdens. “To open a C&D recycling site in California, you have to buy a permit from that state that can cost $250,000,” said Taylor. “That’s a very expensive piece of paper, and that doesn’t include the equipment, the manpower, the land and everything else to support a C&D recycling facility.”

Regulations may be changing to make it more difficult to find end markets, Turley said. The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Boiler MACT rule governing emissions by, among other installations, plants that burn wood to make energy, could add to that burden. “The regulations are okay now,” Turley said. “If they do enforce Boiler MACT, which is still in the comment stage, those requirements will be burdensome.”

For its part, EPA said its focus is on safety. “Of particular importance to United States EPA is that recycling operations are conducted in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment and that products with recycled content are used in a safe manner,” said Suzanne Rudzinski, director of EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery.

Whether regulators or industry representatives, almost everyone recognizes the benefits in saving landfill space, conserving energy and protecting natural resources that comes with C&D recycling. With scrap markets at $280 to $300 per ton, it’s also economically feasible, said Taylor. All the rest, he said, is a temporary distraction. “Long term the industry around the world is committed to this because it represents a significant economic opportunity,” according to Taylor.

C&D Future

One promising development in the world of C&D recycling is gasification, a technology that improves burning of wood chips produced from C&D materials so that there is no smoke emission. Another is the growing interest in re-use of materials generated by deconstruction, which preserves valuable components such as architectural details, doors, windows and exotic woods for re-use.

The overall trend in C&D recycling and re-use is toward expansion. “It’s growing,” said Nicklin. “There’s a huge amount of growth to the industry. The attendance at our conference is growing steadily, and we see many more conversations about it.”

Turley agreed that, although people have been recycling materials generated by construction and demolition as long as they have been building structures and tearing them down, his remains a growth industry. “It’s still in the small and relatively early stages,” he said. “I still see it growing because of the economic feasibility of it and the green building movement. There are just too many factors driving it.”