Tear-Down Economics

With a growing emphasis on green practices at construction and demolition sites, C&D recyclers are finding it's a good time to be in business.

April 1, 2010

6 Min Read
Tear-Down Economics

Nancy Mann Jackson

As early as 1975, SKB Environmental in St. Paul,Minn., began crushing concrete from demolition projects to be used as aggregate in road base. In the 1990s, the company tried to beef up its construction and demolition (C&D) recycling business, purchasing equipment for processing the debris. But SKB was ahead of its time.

Contractors, facility managers and governments were less interested in "green" practices at the time, and processing C&D materials on a large scale didn't make economic sense for recyclers.

Now, 35 years after SKB first became interested in reusing C&D materials, the rest of the country is catching up. With the push for more buildings certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, increasing numbers of building owners and contractors are interested in recycling their job site materials. And expanded uses for recycled materials mean that recyclers have more markets for their products.

"Most companies, facility managers and contractors want to be green, and we give them the perfect opportunity to access the technologies to make that possible," says Anthony Colosimo, CEO of Des Moines, Iowa-based Phoenix Recycling, which has diverted hundreds of thousands of tons of C&D from local landfills since starting operations in April 2004.

Joining the Crowd

As a whole, the C&D recycling industry has been growing consistently for the past several years, according to William Turley, executive director of the Eola, Ill.-based Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA). Just as there are numerous types of C&D materials to be recycled, such as concrete, asphalt, wood, drywall, plastics and shingles, there are "hundreds" of products that can be made with the recycled materials, he says.

SKB Environmental, which has gradually grown its C&D recycling business in response to market needs and now occupies a leading spot in the Minnesota market, does several things with the materials it collects from C&D sites.

"Metals, both ferrous and non-ferrous, are sent to scrap metal recyclers," says Ryan O'Gara, government relations representative at SKB Environmental. "Concrete is sent to our asphalt and concrete crushing facility and is recycled into new aggregate material. Wood is sent to biomass energy plants as a wood-derived fuel. We process tear-off shingle roofing waste into a recycled product that … can be incorporated into hot mix asphalt projects. When material prices are acceptable, cardboard is separated and sent to paper recycling facilities."

At both SKB and Phoenix, recycled materials are processed for use as alternative daily covers at landfills, which allows the operators of such sites to conserve soil. An executive at Epping, N.H.-based Environmental Resource Return Corp. says the company's most marketable end product is its C&D chip, which consists of two-by-fours, plywood and tree waste, among other materials. "This goes through a rigorous testing protocol and is used as a fuel source and a press board product that is laminated and then made into kitchen cabinets and office furniture," says Jonathan Hixon, vice president of the firm. "Metals are also recycled and sold back into the marketplace."

While C&D recyclers like Colosimo, Hixon and O'Gara say their businesses remain strong, all acknowledge that there have been ups and downs. "It has been a good business and a very difficult business at different times, due to the volatility of end markets," O'Gara says.

The barriers to entering the C&D recycling business can be daunting if a full understanding of processing, marketing and permitting is not in place, Colosimo says. "In addition, capital expenditures can be significant depending on which type of processing is desired," he adds.

And after entering the market, recyclers face the ongoing challenge of making "environmentally safe and responsible products that are economically viable in the marketplace," O'Gara says.

Turley says industry professionals call him frequently for advice on getting started in C&D recycling. For those who want to enter the market, he says, it's important to know the following:

What will you have coming in? Talk to suppliers and figure out what percentage of your material will be in shingles, what percentage will be in wood, etc. Then design a system that works based on that information.

What are you going to make? "Before you get started, research end markets and know who's going to buy your products," he says.

What will you do with the wood? Most C&D jobs include a lot of wood, which can be harder to place. "Make sure you have a few good markets for wood before getting started," he says.

Forecast for the Future

Although a nationwide decrease in construction projects continues, meaning there are fewer C&D sites, the recycling industry continues to grow slowly, Turley says. While C&D recyclers used to be concentrated along the coasts, the industry is experiencing growth throughout the middle of the country.

For instance, the state of Wisconsin recently mandated that all government construction projects and all construction projects totaling more than $5 million must be LEED certified. That means construction companies working in Wisconsin will be looking to recycle their materials. "There's a tremendous push toward C&D recycling because some of the easiest LEED credits you can get are for recycling," Turley says.

In addition to the Wisconsin legislation and LEED policies in other states such as California, Florida, Maryland and North Carolina, the Minnesota Department of Transportation recently approved the use of recycled tear-off shingles in asphalt pavement for state highways. As a result, Minnesota recyclers like SKB Environmental anticipate a strong emerging local market for recycled shingles. As more state and local governments make green building requirements, opportunities will continue to expand for C&D recyclers.

While there will likely be more recyclers entering the C&D market, Turley says the process will become more regulated in the near future. CMRA is currently working with the U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED system, to create a recycling rate certification process, which would allow LEED inspectors to verify the percentage of materials that are recycled and reused. Currently, "there is no certification process and LEED is lax on the reporting requirements, so there are a lot of people over-reporting their rate of recycling and trying to game the system," Turley says. "The new certification process will make it fair for everyone."

An ongoing challenge for the industry is to educate regulators and help enact legislation that will ban C&D waste from being landfilled, says James Taylor Jr., president of Global Recycling Group in Montgomery, N.Y.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer based in Florence, Ala.

Want to Know More about C&D Recycling?

Ryan O'Gara of SKB Environmental and Anthony Colosimo of Phoenix Recycling will be speaking at the "C&D Challenges and Opportunities" session at WasteExpo on Monday, May 3. The session, part of the Recycling Track, will run from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Want to Know More about LEED Certification?

The "LEED — U.S. Green Building Practices and Waste Industry Impacts" session will be held at WasteExpo on Monday, May 3. The session, part of the Green Management Track, will run from 9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.

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