In June 1998, powerful thunderstorms swept through central Vermont, causing widespread flooding. Some casualties of the flooding were mobile homes located near the town of Bristol, Vt. While this natural disaster was unfortunate, it provided an opportunity to examine current and future waste management practices for obsolete mobile homes.
In the flood's aftermath, Bristol wanted to divert as much waste as possible from its landfill. Joining with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), the town decided to implement a recycling practicality study for ruined mobile homes. D &M Salvage and Recycling, East Burke, Vt., was selected as the recycling contractor for the deconstruction project to assist in determining how much waste could be recycled and to determine costs associated with recovery.
Mobile Homes in Vermont
State and Federal governments estimate that between 12,000 to 15,000 mobiles homes are more than 25 years old and are becoming obsolete in Vermont. As mobile homes reach the end of their serviceable life, they become an economic liability that owners often are unwilling or unable to assume. Many of the homes simply are abandoned or illegally dumped at unauthorized sites. This represents a large volume of waste to be managed, but it also presents opportunities for waste reduction, reuse and recycling.
Bristol's team was interested in learning how much of that waste could be diverted from disposal — how much could be reused, recycled or burned for energy. Another project goal was to evaluate the resources (time, equipment and money) needed to salvage older mobile homes. If the cost of recycling mobile homes was unreasonable compared to the quantity of waste it diverted, an ongoing program would not be supported.
Reuse and Recycling
To begin, any easily acquired, reusable or recyclable materials were removed from the mobile homes. This included all furniture, appliances, carpeting, doors, sinks, toilets, bathtubs, copper plumbing and fixtures, cabinets, vanities, countertops, shelving, paneling and trim, furnaces and electrical breaker boxes (if resaleable), lighting fixtures, electrical outlets, wiring and covers, miscellaneous hardware, and the mobile home frame, axles and wheels.
Essentially, if an item had monetary value or could be donated or bartered, it was segregated — provided the amount of labor required was reasonable.
Many factors influence the economics of any mobile-home recycling project because every mobile home is constructed and deconstructed differently. Commodity markets for scrap metal fluctuate. Distances to recycling markets and disposal facilities are unique to each job site, and landfill tipping fees vary between geographic regions.
Because the Bristol project was only a pilot program, it did not precisely reflect the economics of recycling all mobile homes. However, the data can be used to estimate the costs of a full-scale mobile home recycling program.
The Bristol project's gross expenses totaled $4,613:
$2,525 — for D&Salvage and Recycling to deconstruct five trailers;
$1,823 — in tipping fees for waste disposal in the Bristol Landfill; and
$265 — in administrative costs paid to the town of Bristol.
The project's revenues totaled $736.55:
$721 — for salvaged metal; and
$15 — for a couch that was sold.
The project's net expenses were $3,877, or an average of $775 per trailer.
As expected, deconstructing the trailers did not equal savings. The cost of simply transporting the five trailers to the Bristol Landfill would have been $2,531, compared to the net project cost of $3,877.
The revenue gained from mobile home deconstruction depends largely on scrap metal market prices. Unfortunately, commodity prices at the time of the Bristol pilot were at one of the lowest levels in recent years.
Nevertheless, mobile home recycling can be done and is being done on a limited scale in Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin. In Vermont, at least two private contractors and one landfill operator are dismantling mobile homes for their salvage value. While labor and disposal costs are too great for deconstruction to be profitable, there is a viable market for used mobile home components.
Despite the costs, Bristol and the Vermont ANR encourage the deconstruction of obsolete mobile homes. Abandoned homes are an eyesore and represent a huge volume of waste if mismanaged. Although deconstruction doesn't initially save money, it conserves resources and landfill space. According to the town of Bristol, widespread salvaging of mobile homes would create a legitimate option to abandonment or illegal disposal, as well as provide jobs and economic opportunity.