Building the C&D Recycling Industry (with related video)

Building the C&D Recycling Industry (with related video)

As the C&D recycling industry seeks to emerge from the recession, it's looking for more end markets.

After nearly three years of a brutal recession that has dwindled the supply of construction and demolition (C&D) debris, those who recycle the waste are more than ready for the pipeline of material to start flowing again.

Bob Brickner, a principal with Fairfax, Va.-based Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., a solid-waste-management consulting firm, says most C&D recycling operations across the country probably have seen 30 to 40 percent drops in volume during the recession. “I can’t tell if it has begun to come back or is just now bottoming out,” he says. “It depends on the landfill regulations in your state and activity in the construction industry in your region.”

Brickner’s sentiments are echoed by C&D recyclers across the country. “Our volumes were probably off by 25 to 30 percent at the depth of recession, in early 2009,” says Ben Harvey, executive vice president of Westborough, Mass.-based E. L. Harvey & Sons Inc. “Over the entire period, from the summer of 2008 until the beginning of the turnaround in the fall of last year, we probably averaged volumes of 20 percent less than before the recession.”

“We’re probably down 35 to 40 percent,” adds Gary Dyke, operations supervisor with Loop Laflin C&D Recycling in Chicago, a division of Phoenix-based Republic Services Inc.

But even if an improving economy results in more debris to divert from landfills, C&D processors will still face a problem: as an industry, C&D recycling is still something of a newcomer, and it needs more end-markets for the materials.

Green Roots

The C&D recycling industry began to emerge around 15 years ago, when building owners adopted “green” construction philosophies to promote themselves as good corporate citizens. To that end, many sought — and continue to seek — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications for new structures and renovations. Building contractors, who must satisfy LEED certification requirements as specified by owners, can earn vital LEED points for projects by recycling C&D wastes.

In addition to corporate America’s embrace of the green building movement, governmental regulations played a role in giving rise to C&D recycling, as some jurisdictions have banned the disposal of C&D materials in landfills. For example, the state of Massachusetts bans certain C&D debris from landfills as do counties in California, Oregon and Washington. “Rising landfill tipping fees also are contributing to the growth of C&D recycling,” says William Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA) in Eola, Ill., noting that recycling C&D commodities can cost less that landfilling them.

By the turn of the century, road builders also were diverting their construction materials. “There are two primary sources of C&D recycling commodities — building construction materials, and concrete and asphalt from road construction work,” Turley says.

Both sides of the business — building materials and road materials — had developed into going concerns before the recession tamped them down.

C&D Recycling Snapshot

In November 2009, Houston-based Waste Management Inc. and McGraw Hill Construction in Bedford, Mass., joined forces to profile the emerging C&D recycling industry. The study surveyed 200 building contractors and projected C&D recycling growth through 2014.

The survey found that contractors agreed by wide margins that client demand and government regulations were the primary driving forces behind the growth of C&D recycling. The survey also found that 77 percent of the contractors interviewed believed that recycling C&D debris constituted a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.

At the time of the study, 61 percent of contractors surveyed ranked C&D recycling as an important aspect of a green building, and 80 percent indicated that it would be considered important by 2014. Asked to rank the relative importance of C&D recycling among six green building practices, contractors called it the second most important practice — just behind energy efficiency.

Despite the enthusiasm for C&D recycling, not everyone is doing it. About 43 percent of the contractors surveyed had goals to divert more than 50 percent of a project’s C&D waste into a recycling operation, but 52 percent of those queried indicated that they had no waste diversion goals. If those who say construction waste management expertise provides a competitive advantage are right, it is reasonable to expect quite a few contractors with no diversion goals today will set goals in the future.

The Market Problem

As the recession turns to recovery, building construction and road construction will begin to grow again and provide C&D recyclers with more material. Observers note, however, that hurdles remain. Some C&D materials, for instance, have no established recycling pathways. Others have limited paths.

Properly processed, cement is ready for re-use, but processors in some states can’t sell all of their cement. The markets aren’t there. Some have been cut off. “You can make aggregate road base out of that material by grinding it up,” Harvey says. “But we often have problems convincing DOTs in various states to permit the use of the material as a road base.”

Still other materials have limited low-level uses. Wood, for instance, can’t be processed into a new two-by-four. “Wood goes into animal bedding, mulch and fuel for waste-to-energy facilities,” says Dyke of Republic Services.

“The market for wood isn’t very robust,” Harvey adds. “I think that, as a group, C&D processors probably worry that if the economy turns around and our plants run up to capacity, we’ll generate more wood products than the market will want.”

Recycled asphalt shingles (RAS) only have recently begun to gain acceptance as a paving materials. “Hot-melt asphalt can now contain 2.5 percent to 5 percent of RAS,” says Harvey. “It makes a good filler.”

According to the Waste Management/McGraw Hill Construction report, contractors generate 143 million tons of C&D waste each year. Of that amount, roughly one-quarter — 35 million tons — is recycled. As more C&D recyclers get into the business and supplies increase, prices will — according to the law of supply and demand — decline, which could drive companies back out of the business, and in turn leave mountains of C&D waste un-recycled and headed for a landfill.

The solution will have two parts, say industry observers: processing standards for recyclers and new products by manufacturers using processed recyclables.

Processing standards will give buyers — the manufacturers of the new products — and the recycling processors a way to establish and manage their economic relationship. Right now, a working group made up of members of the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) and the CMRA is developing standards for C&D recyclers to apply when processing wood fuel. As in the traditional recycling industry, the standards will set different prices for different levels of contamination.

“You don’t sell scrap — someone buys it,” says Chaz Miller, state programs director with the Washington-based Environmental Industry Associations, the parent association of NSWMA. “The buyer says, ‘This is what I want,’ and the seller meets that specification. Standards specify what the market wants to buy and what the seller should provide.”

Standards aim to create predictable markets for buyers, who can serve their existing markets or develop new markets with new products. New products, of course, will expand the markets for the various C&D materials and make it possible for new companies to enter the C&D recycling industry and succeed.

Here’s how that may work: For a long time, gypsum wallboard wasn’t recycled. No one knew what to do with it. Today, however, new products made from wallboard components are making it possible to recycle wallboard.

During processing, wallboard is now separated into its component parts and sold for a variety of uses. The gypsum makes a soil amendment rich in calcium and sulfur that is considered beneficial for corn, potatoes and other vegetable crops. The wallboard also can be ground up and used in cement and compost. The paper backing makes animal bedding.

While it used to be difficult to recycle wallboard, companies that process gypsum wallboard into these end products today can’t keep up with demand. When that begins to happen with other materials, the C&D recycling industry will enter a new, mature phase.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

Sidebar: Want to Know More about C&D Recycling?

The 2011 WasteExpo conference program will feature the “Salvaging Recycling: New Developments in Construction and Demolition Materials” session. The session, which is part of the Composting and Recycling Track, will be held on Tuesday, May 10, from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Amy Costello of Armstrong World Industries Inc. and Dan Costello of Costello Dismantling Co. Inc. will speak at the session. William Turley, executive director of the Eola, Ill.-based Construction Materials Recycling Association, will moderate the session.

For complete information on the 2011 WasteExpo, visit