Laying the Groundwork

Imagine taking a stroll through the breezy streets of Chicago. But rather than marveling at the sprouting condo towers, luxury hotels and high-rise office complexes, you instead are faced with 80-foot-high mounds of construction and demolition (C&D) debris. Such was the scene at a site originally permitted as a C&D recycling facility, which had turned into an illegal dump.

When the city took ownership of the location, it was quoted $20 million for clean-up fees. But by recycling nearly 80 percent of the towering material, Chicago was able to reduce clean-up costs to $9 million, clearing the way for the Chicago Center for Green Technology.

That was just one experience that convinced Chicago leaders that the city could successfully implement a C&D debris recycling ordinance. “The way that Mayor [Richard] Daley works and encourages us to work as departments is to do something ourselves before requiring the private sector to do it,” says Sadhu Johnston, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Environment. “Once we tried it ourselves and realized there was a national trend, we looked to some developers and contractors locally and saw how much they were recycling and what the costs and challenges were.”

The city found that a number of contractors were recycling up to 80 percent of their waste without additional costs. That prompted officials to begin drafting the ordinance with input from stakeholders.

In March, Chicago began requiring contractors to recycle at least 25 percent of their C&D debris and provide documentation within 30 days of a project's completion. In 2007, that requirement will increase to 50 percent. Those responsible for the ordinance initially considered a 50 percent rate from the outset but wanted to give the industry time to gear up for it.

Surveying the Landscape

Chicago joins a growing number of municipalities across the country that are using ordinances to increase C&D recycling rates, including nearly 20 communities in California. Cities that previously focused on creating successful residential recycling and composting programs are beginning to turn to C&D debris for a variety of reasons.

“Typically, C&D is not something that municipalities have embraced and dealt with on a daily basis,” says Robert Brickner, senior vice president for Fairfax, Va.-based consulting firm Gersham, Brickner and Bratton (GBB). “Their involvement was giving out permits. Period. One sheet of paper.”

Now, however, recycling rate goals, higher tip fees and near-capacity landfills are making typically heavy C&D materials an attractive recycling target for the public sector. “States on the East Coast where tipping fees are high have become the motherhood of invention,” Brickner adds.

The specifics of the ordinances vary as much as the reasons for implementing them. Some rules establish varying percentages depending on the type of material, while others set different rates based on whether the contractor is constructing, demolishing or a combination of the two. Some require that a recovery plan and a deposit be submitted before a permit is issued, which some cities have deemed to be too cumbersome. Others ask that all material not source-separated onsite be sent to a recovery facility.

The mandated requirements are just one approach to the continually growing interest in the C&D waste stream. Some cities and states are offering incentives for C&D recycling, such as expedited permits, while others are banning certain C&D materials from landfills. In July, for instance, Massachusetts enacted its disposal ban on asphalt pavement, brick, concrete, metal and wood. Also in recent months, Fauquier County, Va., in consultation with GBB, has been working on creating a C&D processing and recovery facility, making the county one of only a few public entities that own and operate their own C&D recycling center. The county was motivated by the looming closure of its C&D landfill and the potential loss of disposal fees.

Continuing to Build

San Francisco is promoting C&D recycling in order to reach its 75 percent recycling goal by 2010. The bayside destination is doing so with an ordinance that went into effect on July 1. “We need to have an ordinance saying we understand the lower tip fees at landfills but the material needs to be recycled,” says Alex Dimitriew, commercial recycling assistant coordinator for San Francisco Environment. “It seems to be the only way to get a handle on that material.”

Different from Chicago, San Francisco requires that all mixed C&D debris — debris not source-separated onsite — be sent to a registered recycling facility that can recover at least 65 percent of the material. “There are many versions of this ordinance. Ours is one of the least intrusive,” Dimitriew says.

Contractors, for example, do not have to submit debris recovery plans unless they are applying for a permit to completely demolish a building. Otherwise, they are trusted to use a registered transporter to take the materials to a registered facility, a decision the city made, in part, based on input from large stakeholders.

“Our feeling is that the major construction jobs are our least worries. The big, well-established contractors already have been mitigating their debris,” Dimitriew says. What the city does see as obstacles are mid-range remodel and tenant improvements jobs and ensuring that the haulers are actually taking the materials to registered facilities, rather than low-fee landfills.

Since the ordinance became effective, Norcal, which owns one of two facilities San Francisco has approved, has seen an increase in the amount of C&D debris coming to its operation, according to Robert Reed, a spokesperson for the company. Because of other factors, such as the closure of a nearby landfill, Norcal has not been able to pinpoint how much of the increase is a direct result of the new requirement. Regardless, in September, the facility added another line of recycling sorters to one of its shifts. For its part, the city currently is visiting and reviewing other facilities to add to the registered list it gives contractors applying for permits.

Riding the Big Green Wave

For Chicago, its recent ordinance is closely tied to a focus on green building and an overall interest in making the Windy City an environmentally friendly one as well. Every new city building now is being constructed to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, which include a component for recycling C&D materials. The previously mentioned Chicago Center for Green Technology building received platinum certification from the building council.

In addition to the C&D recycling requirement, Chicago is offering incentives for green building, such as expedited permits. “We see a national trend in green building, and construction recycling is a key part of that trend,” Johnston says. “There is going to be more emphasis on these kinds of issues, and we want Chicago companies and developers to be on the lead in doing it.”

Brickner, too, sees the LEED standards as contributing to an increased interest in C&D recycling. “The amount of LEED-certified contribution, in the big scheme of things, [is] not that significant,” he says. “But the attitude, the interest and the educational side of it is important. You have to start somewhere and when people become aware of it, it becomes institutionalized.” Tallahassee, Fla., for instance, is one city that has taken an interest and renovated its Solid Waste Administration building to LEED standards.

To become LEED certified, buildings must receive a certain number of points that can come from six categories, one of which is designated “materials and resources.” Points are awarded for maintaining parts of an existing building — such as walls — in the case of remodels, diverting C&D debris from landfills, reusing materials, and using recycled, locally produced and other environmentally friendly products. Johnston says that LEED standards now are incorporated into approximately 5 percent of building projects across the country.

Pulling the Cart

By requiring contractors to recycle C&D debris, cities shoulder some of the responsibility for making the ordinances feasible. “It's the city's job to inform and make efforts to get the job done,” Reed says. “We staff the MRF, we operate it and we collect the debris from sites, but the city writes the rules.” Representatives for both Chicago and San Francisco say that the cities have made education a top priority.

Chicago has held educational seminars, done direct mailings and hands out forms and brochures when the building or demolition permits are issued. A list of haulers and recyclers that can provide the needed services are available online and elsewhere. “What we don't want is for people to think, well, there's no one that can do this, so I'm not going to do this,” Johnston says.

San Francisco has made similar efforts in educating contractors in the area. Dimitriew says that initially the city is going to focus on education and outreach, particularly with the haulers, rather than on fining those who don't comply.

While the cities are trying to do their part, they also are hoping that these ordinances are embraced by the industries. Dimitriew, for example, hopes that stronger markets will develop in the area for some C&D debris, such as carpet. He also would like to see more registered facilities join the fold.

Similarly, Johnston anticipates that as the ordinance ramps up, companies will find ways to utilize more difficult-to-recycle materials, such as shingles and drywall. Already, some Chicago contractors are investing in additional crushing and sorting equipment to prepare themselves for an increase in C&D recycling.

“We recognize that the city can't do it alone,” Johnston says. “We need the industries that are really doing this work to be behind it.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is the managing editor of Waste Age.


To achieve LEED status, new buildings must achieve 26 to 69 points, depending on the level of certification. For materials and resources recovery and reuse, the following points can be earned:

  • Maintain existing wall, floors and roofs (1 point for 75 percent; 2 for 95 percent).
  • Maintain 50 percent of interior non-structural elements (1 point).
  • Divert debris from disposal (1 point for 50 percent; 2 for 75 percent).
  • Reuse materials (1 point for 5 percent; 2 for 10 percent).
  • Use materials made with recycled content (1 point for 10 percent; 2 for 20 percent).
  • Use regional materials (1 point for 10 percent; 2 for 20 percent).
  • Use rapidly renewable materials (1 point).
  • Use certified wood (1 point).