MARCH 2010

Drywall recycling continues despite dip Click to Enlarge - Demolition drywall may contain lead based paints, asbestos joint compounds, fiberglass or other contaminants that may test as hazardous waste.
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Recycling waste drywall was a viable and growing sector until the financial crisis of 2008. Then it immediately declined along with the entire construction and demolition (C&D) industry. However, as landfill restrictions prohibiting drywall increase, it could very well become a booming sector of the recycling industry.

“We’re still here despite the drop in construction. Last year we recycled approximately 20,000 tons,” said Rick Sauder, project manager for USA Gypsum, headquartered in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His company gathers scraps of new drywall from large construction projects around the northeast and converts it into agricultural fertilizer and animal bedding, primarily for the dairy industry.

USA Gypsum does not want demolition drywall. It may contain paint, possibly lead-based paints, asbestos joint compounds, fiberglass, or other contaminants that may test as hazardous waste.

“New and old drywall must be separated before recycling and tested. If contaminated, then it must be treated and disposed of as hazardous waste,” said Beatriz Sandoval at the CalRecycle Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery.  


USA Gypsum, in business since 1998, operates modern plants in Pennsylvania that use automated machines that can process up to 12 tons of drywall per hour. “Based on the amount of new drywall shipped into the mid-Atlantic region, I estimate that only five percent of new drywall is actually recycled by the four drywall recycling plants located here,” said Terry Weaver, president of USA Gypsum. His company finds that large, new drywall projects yield 18 to 20 percent waste and is very aggressive in acquiring scrap.

They offer several convenient ways for contractors and waste handlers to recycle. “We will do whatever works best for a contractor at a particular job. We have many different options. We set our dumpsters on site. Sometimes we send our crews to provide labor for the drywall crews and we scrap directly into our own trucks. That saves the contractor on labor, hauling costs and tipping fees,” said Sauder.

Construction waste haulers can deliver roll-off containers to a job site and bring the loaded containers to USA Gypsum and receive documentation for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

Contractors can also stack drywall on pallets at the job site. When a trailer load is accumulated, USA Gypsum will pick up with a trailer that can be loaded with a forklift. USA Gypsum also works with a number of transfer stations, recyclers and waste handlers like Waste Management to take their drywall. USA asks that drywall be separated and accumulated in a specified location. After a tractor trailer load is accumulated they can ship it to USA Gypsum, or USA Gypsum will pick it up with a trailer.

“At our plant we grind it up, separate the gypsum from the paper into two streams. The gypsum is pulverized and the paper is shredded into one to two inch pieces used for animal bedding,” Sauder explained. “There’s good demand for animal bedding. It’s very absorbent and takes the place of wood shavings or straw.”

USA’s Gypsum’s products come in three forms packed in 40 or 50 pound bags. A granular size can be spread with any fertilizer or lime spreader. Pulverized product is spread with Vicon-type spreaders, or drop and lime spreaders. Ultra-Fine is applied manually. Bag prices range from $3.95 to $4.50. It is sold primarily to produce farmers.

Terry Weaver commented on the landfill situation. “I am not factoring in landfill bans into my business plan and don’t count on regulations to make my business successful. I believe there are two forces driving the growth of drywall recycling. Even though landfills accept drywall, most prefer not to because of the risk of hydrogen sulfide problems. The other factor is the green building movement and LEED certification.”

USA Gypsum earns income on both the incoming scrap and outgoing products. For incoming scrap, it charges fees ranging from $15 to $35 per ton depending on quantity and quality of the material. This is considerably less than tipping fees that range from approximately $55 per ton in Lancaster County to the $90 per ton range in the Philadelphia area. “We can move everything we can get our hands on. I could double our output in a few years if I had the raw material.” Weaver concluded.

There is a paradox in recycling demolition drywall. Who is going to take the time and spend the money to test each piece in a load? That’s why today most goes untested into landfills. But things are changing. It has been over 32 years since the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission banned lead paint, so drywall installed after 1978 is likely not contaminated by paint, at least. Recyclers of demolition drywall hedge their liability by saying they do not accept contaminated and rely on the integrity of the provider. Meanwhile, drywall manufacturers are reluctant to use demolition gypsum because of purity concerns.

Chemically, the mineral gypsum is hydrated calcium sulfate (CaSO4-2(H2O), essentially calcium and sulfate but may contain small amounts of other minerals. Gypsum comprises over 90 percent of the weight of a piece of drywall, the balance heavy paper, both useful commodities if they can be recycled economically.

Recovered gypsum can be used in the manufacture of new drywall, in the production of cement and as an ingredient in many commercial products. It is also widely used as a soil amendment to improve drainage and plant growth, as a major ingredient in the production of fertilizers and used as an additive for composting operations.

Unfortunately, most drywall in North America is still disposed in landfills. Challenges to widespread recycling include collection, separation and testing costs, relatively low landfill tipping fees and the need for greater education of potential end users.

Gypsum has many positive agricultural uses because of its chemical composition and because it is dispersed thinly and evenly, but can have negative effects in landfills when deposited in large, concentrated amounts. Most that is dumped in landfills is old and may contain contaminants. New or old, when it gets wet in an environment that lacks oxygen and contains organic matter, the sulfate in the gypsum dissolves in water (about 17 percent of gypsum is sulfate) and if it reaches groundwater, contamination may result.

The other major concern is the conversion of dissolved sulfate into hydrogen sulfide which has the awful stench of rotting eggs, which can be detected for miles even at low levels. It can also irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, cause nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain. In high enough doses, it is lethal. The wet and anaerobic conditions of a landfill are the perfect conditions for generating hydrogen sulfide. Since drywall accounts for approximately 15 percent of C&D waste, this problem is gaining attention of lawmakers and state EPAs along with other C&D disposal issues and is likely to affect future landfill regulations, either with outright bans, higher tipping fees or compulsory recycling.
British Columbia appears to be on the leading edge of North American drywall recycling and portends of what may come in the states. Vancouver, for example, has banned drywall from landfills and it must be taken offsite for recycling or treatment. In 2008, the Regional District of Central Okanagan (RDCO) in British Columbia prohibited landfilling drywall and instituted a C$145 per metric ton fee, prorated by weight, for taking drywall. “The resident or business pays us to accept the drywall and then we pay a contractor to take it away and recycle it. It’s our responsibility to collect a clean product, and to date, we have not had a problem with contamination,” said Peter Rotheisler, waste reduction manager for RDCO.

“We get our raw material from new construction and demolition job sites, and RDCO,” said Gavin Pheiffer, owner of Okanagan Gypsum Recycling. He started the business of recycling drywall 14 months ago and in 2009 processed 6,000 metric tons. Contractors deliver drywall to his plant and pay him a fee to take it. Otherwise, they would have to haul it to RDCO and pay there. Like USA Gypsum, Okanagan Gypsum’s end products are paper animal bedding and granulated gypsum that goes into either new drywall or to fertilizer. “In Canada we also have LEED which is mandated for government construction. Now we are seeing private companies following it. With that kind of drive behind it, it’s certainly a growth industry.”

In the United States, a number of states are considering strategies that may result in the ban of drywall from landfills. Massachusetts is in the vanguard. At the 4th Annual Environmental Business Council Construction and Materials Regional Summit held in January in Framingham, Massachusetts, Jim McQuade of MassDEP made a presentation that stated: “MassDEP will hold a meeting among interested parties on the advisability of expanding the disposal ban to include gypsum wallboard.” MassDEP currently has a draft regulation package under review proposing to ban the disposal of clean gypsum wallboard.

“When we first started to find ways to recycle wallboard, we did it in Massachusetts for that reason,” said Al Zucco, USG’s director of energy and sustainability.

USG Corporation is a leading producer of gypsum wallboard, joint compound and other products for construction and remodeling. USG recycles its own waste during manufacture and uses 100 percent recycled paper. “USG is currently in the process of developing a national gypsum recycling program. However, we have recycled gypsum on individual basis for particular jobs with various customers,” stated Zucco.

“Wallboard is a big, awkward, heavy and a relatively inexpensive product. To put the effort into separating clean wallboard scraps is usually not worth the labor because it may get mixed with foreign materials. “We have tight engineering specs on the gypsum we use and have to make sure what we get in recycled meets our standards for purity and safety,” Zucco added.