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LEED change impacts C&D recycling

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A new rule expected from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) this summer will stop giving construction and demolition recyclers credit for the recycling technique most widely used to win green certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building rating system.

“That’s thrown our industry into a tizzy,” said Jason Haus, chief executive officer of Dem-Con Companies, a Shakopee, Minnesota, recycling and disposal company. Haus said the new draft of LEED has some improvements. However, he is concerned that less material will be recycled as a result.

The new USGBC rule is part of a recent revision of the LEED ratings system. The revision was supposed to have been issued last year. But after critical response to an early draft from the recycling community and other stakeholders, it was delayed.

Recyclers still aren’t happy. “We disputed it but it doesn’t do any good,” said William Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA), a national industry group based in Aurora, Illinois. Turley said the result of the rule change will be that some recyclers and some projects will be unable to claim the LEED credits they could have in the past.


At the center of the issue is the way the LEED ratings treats construction and demolition material used as alternative daily cover in landfills. LEED grants credits to projects that recycle a certain percentage of materials. Projects got one LEED credit for recycling 50 percent of their materials, and a second point for exceeding 75 percent.

Until now, recyclers have been able to claim C&D material used as alternative daily cover as part of the percentage of material being recycled. The material used for daily cover has been one of the largest sources of the recycling credit.

“It originally was one of the easiest credits to get,” said Anne Nicklin, executive director of The Building Materials Reuse Association, a Chicago-based educational and research organization. “You told your contractor you needed to get 75 percent recycling and they’d pull out the metal and grind up the rest and it would go to alternative daily cover.”

The green building coalition’s changed stance on daily cover doesn’t surprise many observers. “This isn’t unexpected,” Turley said. “They’ve been indicating that for a while. They don’t consider anything going to a landfill as being recycling.”

The change does, however, create a potential problem for recyclers who have been offering building owners, designers and others an opportunity to get a LEED credit by recycling substantial portions of the material. “What’s happened is they’ve raised the bar to the point that for recycling in a facility-type setting, it’s going to be very difficult to provide LEED benefits to C&D projects,” Haus said.

In many cases, C&D recyclers will now need to sort materials on-site to obtain the credits. That will require additional sorting containers, which may be expensive or impractical to accommodate in many building sites. In densely populated urban areas, for instance, construction and demolition sites rarely have the room for extensive sorting activities, Haus said.

Another problem is the lack of markets other than alternative daily cover for much of the material that could be sorted out from a job site. Inconsistent local regulations also make it difficult to comply with a national program like LEED. While recyclers have devoted significant resources to creating infrastructure for processing and transporting materials for landfill daily cover, few if any other products or markets can employ the materials, Haus said.

With less incentive and opportunity to recycle, Haus said, less material is likely to go to recycling facilities. “More than likely they’ll go the cheaper route and landfill it,” he said.

Revision Background

The LEED revision, which includes much more than the change to the way alternative daily cover is regarded, has several purposes, notes Brad Guy, associate director of the Center for Building Stewardship at the School of Architecture and Planning at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. For instance, the changes are intended to follow Europe’s lead in adding more consideration for waste-to-energy from material streams, Guy said.

The USBGC also wants to reward projects for reducing their waste before recycling, Guy said. Encouraging separate waste streams will help to generate a higher quality of recycling feedstock, he added. “Another major trend is the requirement for construction waste management plans as a prerequisite in the system,” Guy said.

Recycler Response

C&D recyclers would like to see some adjustment in the way LEED credits are figured so that projects could still win credits despite not being able to include alternative daily cover as recycling. Haus also wishes LEED would address the growing prevalence of hard-to-recycle materials such as plastic-covered concrete and use of foamed plastic as concrete forms. “They are not considering the impacts of end-of-life of these materials as critically as they should,” he said.

Many of these newer materials improve energy efficiency of structures. However, a cost comes later when it is time to decommission and demolish the buildings. Concrete is ordinarily a highly recyclable material. But it is very difficult to separate it from plastics and adhesives, Haus said. “It makes it virtually unrecyclable down the road,” he said.

Not all recycler response to the LEED changes is negative. Many are in favor of tightening scrutiny of recyclers that exaggerate their claims for credits. “There’s been way too much fraud under the recycling credits,” Turley said. Some recyclers send materials to landfills, for instance, he said, and then claim the materials have been recycled.

“You can write down whatever you want,” he said. “You can cheat and many people have. It’s started to outrage the legitimate recyclers.” Turley and others would like the USGBC to begin requiring that recycling be done by facilities certified by the CMRA’s Certification of Recycling Rates or a similar program.

C&D Future

For the moment, C&D recyclers are faced with making significant adjustments. LEED ratings will be a focus of conversation at the upcoming DeCon 13 industry conference in Seattle, Nicklin said.

It’s not the end of the rules’ evolution either. Guy expects LEED will examine substitutes for petroleum-based plastics, more transparency in how C&D recyclers and other firms earn and claim credits and continued separation of material streams.

Nor is it the end of C&D recycling. Turley notes that LEED-related business is only about 15 percent of the volume for a typical company in his industry. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “A guy can survive without it.”