On Sept. 15 presenters at WasteExpo session: “Construction and Demo (C&D) Debris and COVID 19” dove into how companies dealing with a tremendous waste stream—even larger than municipal solid waste— have fared through COVID-19.
Industry pros candidly discussed how they are adapting to ongoing uncertainty and made projections for the future of their special niche. And a pioneer in robotic sorters/artificial intelligence explained how these robots are stepping up through trying times as well as ways he figures the technology will continue to support the industry once the pandemic crisis is over.
Moderated by Bruce Schmucker, Clark-Floyd Landfill Corporation; presenters were Richard Ludt, Interior Removal Specialist; Bill Keegan, Dem-Con Companies; and Matanya Horowitz, AMP Robotics.
Ludt opened, beginning by shedding light on challenges in tracking diversion of commodities that fall under the highly specialized category of commercial interior C&D.
“C&D diversion is measured by weight. It’s the easiest way to measure at a facility, as you can’t track by project because you would have to weigh, sort and track separately.
“But this makes it impossible to track specific commodities being diverted. So, you can’t track your project specifically, and when we started working with commercial interior debris we determined that’s a problem,” said Ludt.
He explained: the two C&D commodities that get especially high recycling rates in a standard facility – wood and cement— are not coming out of commercial interior projects. Interior Specialist retrieves mainly steel, copper and aluminum—some cardboard and plastic. It deals with drywall, ceiling tile and commercial carpet. And the facilities Ludt works with only recycle about 25 or 30 percent of these special loads by weight.
“But we get credit for more diversion than they took from our projects because it’s tracked by facility average for a time period. How it’s done is: tons in minus tons out to landfill equals diversion. It doesn’t give you makeup,” he told attendees.
So the company works with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) whereby a third-party verification system enables monthly tracking of diversion; a report is generated detailing diversion by commodity, “so it shows what your facility is recycling,” he said.
A lot is going on with COVID in his industry, at least he can vouch for this in California. Due to social distancing, and consequently fewer workers, facilities can’t meet diversion requirements.
“You have almost a 50 percent reduction in manpower trying to get the same diversion. USGBC thought it was not fair for projects to take that hit,” said Ludt.
So, the organization takes averages of recycling facilities reporting to it and gives credit for their diversion rates for the six months prior to COVID.
Ludt called out C&D as among the most wasteful of all industries. Specifically, in the commercial interior sector there are a lot of class A high-rise buildings whose tenants usually move out within five to seven years.
“They have multimillion-dollar clients coming to their offices so [those spaces] have to look pristine with top-of-line fixtures and furniture, and as soon as they start to show wear they often rent a whole new space. They build out and newly furnish and everything in the space they vacated is now trash,” said Ludt.
Being the demo contractor, hauler and recycler gives him a leg up with regard to ability to track and recover materials.
Interior Specialist has a large warehouse where it brings furniture and fixtures and makes them available to nonprofits. The company donates 30 to 60 tons of these materials every month.
“This is something that can be done with just a little help from oversight agencies anywhere in the country. Anywhere you can find space you could have demo contractors dropping materials off for free rather than paying landfill fees. And you get these materials back into the community in the hands of nonprofits who really need them. We would like to see this program go into other markets. This is a repeatable and very socially equitable activity,” he said.
Keegan focused more on traditional C&D waste streams, including market trends; trends in stream composition and volume; and COVID’s impact nationwide and in Minnesota where he operates. He elaborated on plans for improvements.
In 2008 Dem-Con automated its processing and focused on recovery of wood, metals, cardboard and aggregate. Its LEED-accredited C&D facility processes 50,000 to 60,000 tons of C&D per year and has a recovery rate of 75%.
COVID-19 has been somewhat of a gamechanger.
“On March 25, C&D was declared essential in our state. Some folks are working on a return-to-work plan, though this was the case from day one because we have not had the luxury to leave our jobs,” Keegan said.
To operate safely the company developed a COVID action plan, implementing practices such as mandatory face masks and doing thorough cleanings throughout the day. Breakrooms and lunch areas were added and other adjustments in community spaces were made to reduce contact among workers.
Dem-Con also moved to ticketless transactions, though this meant shouting to customers over the sound of trucks; so the operation transitioned to a remote printer that prints tickets, negating the need to handle them or shout instructions.
“Through COVID we continue to try and maintain productivity; we need to be nimble and willing to change. And we really need to understand impacts to supply from volume and composition perspectives,” Keegan said.
From a volume perspective: in July 2020 there were 1.5 million new housing starts, which was up significantly from June and was the highest reading since before COVID.
“I think it’s an indicator of a strong underlying economy. Also, more people are staying home and there are more projects going on. So, C&D volume is strong, and I think it will be into next year on the residential side,” he said.
But the commercial side is not doing well.
Commercial real estate is down an average of 25% and hospitality is down 47% “so impact on interior remodeling is going to be down across the commercial sector. The extent remains to be seen, and the net impact on volumes at this point is unknown,” he said.
As far as trends at his facility, in 2020 tons are up about 20% with no negative impacts from COVID-19 seen in Q1 or Q2.
“We think it’s because we had projects in the pipeline that continue, but we’ve seen early indicators that Q3 and Q4 markets will be down. Shingle manufacturing, prefab concrete panels and prefab countertops were down in Q2 though there has recently been some recovery in shingles and countertops.”
In July 2020 Dem-Con’s volumes were 25% below 2019 volumes. Keegan said it remains to be seen what will happen next year but that current projects indicate volumes will be down.
Composition includes mainly wood and metals. There are strong end markets for wood but wood generation in Q1 and Q2 were down from last year. Whether this is due to COVID’s impact or other factors is undetermined so the future for composition is unknown.
On the metals side, specifically with ferrous, Dem-Con’s volume is up a little year to date for Q1 and Q2 over last year, but markets are low.
Keegan moved on to operational challenges beyond those tied to the pandemic.
The company did upgrades to its aging C&D processing system in 2019 to improve the environment for workers and is now evaluating other upgrades, including AI-enabled robots.
The other challenge is labor. It’s a hard job and a challenge to staff. PreCOVID the national unemployment rate was 3.5%. While unemployment has spiked considerably, it is starting to decline.
“We don’t know if it will continue to decline but low unemployment makes it hard to staff our processing lines,” Keegan said.
The robotics he is paying attention to could, among potential benefits, eliminate the need to continually look for new employees.
“Our goal is to reduce reliance on manual labor and improve safety and efficiency of our facility. Robotics have made great strides and are proven in single stream. I think on the C&D side it is still considered emerging technology,” he said, citing challenges such as that treated wood is hard to identify for both humans and robots.
The session focus shifted to more details on robotics with Horowitz leading the discussion.
He spoke of substantial progress in the technology in the past year, and most recently, how robots have come into play through COVID-19.
Robotics and AI have for several years helped solve primary recycling challenges mainly focused on single-stream recycling, where robots are deployed to automate recycling of most commodities. “Smart robots” can be taught to identify what human sorters are taught to identify.
Even before COVID there were challenges, such as high turnover and safety issues. But now more than ever there is hunger for automation, Horowitz surmised.
“[Through COVID, the technology] provides a mechanism for recycling facilities to think about their layout and provide more distance between workers without sacrificing throughput,” he said.
Moving beyond applications during the pandemic he said, “We are excited because for a couple of years we have been deploying them into single-stream applications, sorting a lot of material in differing conditions. The vision system is connected to a robotic sorter, and what’s powerful is it learns over time to identify different commodities. And robots learn from each other to identify different suites of materials,” he said.
So, while the initial focus has been on single-stream materials he told attendees he has found that the same technology can learn and distinguish large fractions of material in the C&D world, including aggregate, wood and cardboard.
Gains in knowledge in one area inform what to do in another area.
“[For instance], with electronic waste the knowledge informed what we did when we went with C&D material, so now we are seeing we are making greater inroads in C&D material,” Horowitz said.
AMP is deploying robots in Japan that sort smaller pieces of material and varied materials in C&D facilities using the same vision-based technology. Though currently the five systems in Japan pick mainly wood.
There are some caveats. Visual cues are used to identify materials and in certain cases it may be hard to distinguish them, “but with enough cues and markings, and if it’s what a person can identify, we can hit similar levels to human performance,” he said.
Horowitz observes similar interests around the world “and as result we hope to help in the same ways.”
In the U.S., specifically, he said, robots are an appropriate solution for challenges tied to cash flow in these times of huge variations in commodities markets and supply as well as an uncertain future.
“Robots provide an opportunity to know costs and benefits because of their consistency. Our first installations in North America will be later this year. We are expecting more robots to pop up over North America in C&D facilities,” he said.
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