Recyclers Turn Construction Debris Into Needed Products and Services

Recyclers Turn Construction Debris Into Needed Products and Services

Throughout the nation, construction crews are building new offices, shopping centers, warehouses, condominiums, and subdivisions. And at every construction site, debris like concrete blocks, lumber, plastics, paper, and dirt must be removed. A growing number of businesses throughout the country are specializing in reclaiming those materials so the debris isn’t simply hauled off to a regional landfill for disposal.

“Almost everything that comes out of a construction site is recyclable,” says Lou DiVita, sales manager for Delta Recycling, a South Florida-owned subsidiary of Allied Waste Industries. “We recycle about 80% of all the material that crosses our gates. In addition, new processes and technologies are being developed all the time that make it easier and more efficient to recycle.”

In Boston, John Kelso, executive vice president of Jet-A-Way, Inc. has seen a strong increase in demand from contractors and homebuilders over the past two years. “We have a seasonal construction business in Massachusetts,” he said, “and our volume is starting to kick up again.”

The state of California has taken a proactive approach to encouraging recycling, setting a goal for every city or county to recycle at least 50% of its waste. “With the cans, bottles and newspapers already being recycled, governments are looking to construction recycling firms to meet that goal,” says Michael Gross, marketing manger, Zanker Road Landfill in San Jose.

Gross says his Silicon Valley facility processed 380,000 tons of construction debris for the 12 months ending in March with an 88% recycling rate. “We take the debris from an entire wood home, including the kitchen sink, and put it through a processing operation called the ‘rocket’ that we invented,” he says. “It will separate out the concrete, steel, aluminum, copper, and wood -- all the components that are recyclable.”

Construction recycling firms like Delta, Jet-A-Way and Zanker are typically seeing about a 10% annual growth in volume, according to William Turley, executive director, Construction Materials Recycling Association in Lisle, Ill.

The CMRA, which has about 130 members nationwide, estimates that 300 to 325 million tons of construction debris is generated every year, compared to just 200 million tons of regular garbage. Yet only about half of construction debris is now recycled. “While this is one of the biggest waste streams in the country, it’s also the most under publicized,” Turley says, “Most of the firms in this business are mom-and-pop operations. Delta and Jet-A-Way are among the bigger ones.”

According to DiVita, lumber recovered from Florida construction sites is recycled as mulch for lawns and gardens, or used for animal bedding. Scrap wood is ground up and used to fuel boilers at area co-generation power plants, while dirt, rocks and soil are used as fill material or for land reclamation projects. “For example, a new retail center in Davie, Florida, where we are located was built on a site that was filled entirely with recycled building materials,” DiVita says.

In Alameda, Calif., Green Waste Recovery Inc. helped Citation Homes recycle about 1,000 tons of construction materials generated by the first phase of its Inspirations at Foothill Glen project, a development of 95 single-family homes. Leftover wood became mulch or fuel for co-generated power. Sheetrock scraps were turned into a gypsum soil component. Concrete and asphalt were ground to be used as road base.

“This project clearly demonstrates what can be accomplished through careful business planning,” said Wendy Sommer, program manager for the Alameda County Waste Management Authority, a regional agency whose mission is to help cities and counties achieve state and local recycling mandates. “The 86% recycling rate for this project is very impressive,” she says.

Extending the working life of landfills helps businesses and residents throughout the country, according to Turley, who adds that construction debris recycling has other ‘hidden’ benefits as well. Recycling centers are usually located near major areas of construction, reducing truck traffic that can wear out local roads. “It also saves our natural resources like trees. Any way you look at it, recycling benefits the community,” he says.