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Wasting Our Waste 

In an area with rapid growth, why can't we recycle more construction materials?

As coincidences go, it was a meager one. A few months back, I was reading an article about irate Orange County citizens fighting a construction and demolition (C&D) waste landfill, proposed for the northeastern part of the county. The proposal died because of that opposition, leaving Orange County with perhaps as little as six months' supply of C&D landfill space.

The coincidence resides in the fact that I read the article sitting on the porch of Fowler's Grocery in downtown Durham. I sat atop vibrant yellow pine planks, reharvested in 1995 from a dozen old tobacco warehouses. I could lean against a railing, created by artist and metalsmith Al Frega, made of recycled water pipes and ventilation fans from the warehouses. In fact, when workers dismantled the 1930s-era warehouses to make way for the Northpointe development between I-85 and Guess Road, they did more than recycle the pipes, fans, steel beams and wood: They crushed the brick and concrete foundations into tennis ball-size pieces, using them to level out the ground.

It didn't happen because builders are required to recycle what materials they can. It happened thanks to an alignment of three uncommon personalities--a developer, a demolition-company owner and a businessman. Together, they took unusual chances that led to the salvaging of 250 tractor-trailer loads of well-preserved loblolly pine flooring, along with 30 loads of other recyclable materials.

The developer, Northpointe's Jerry Dickens, did the first uncommon thing: He chose a demolition bid that wasn't the lowest, partly because he wanted to see material from the sheet-metal clad buildings recycled.

Jim Klemick, the owner of Axel Demolition and Salvage Inc., had no buyer for the 3 million board feet of scruffy-looking pine in the buildings when Northpointe accepted his bid. But Klemick was willing to risk offering a bid that depended on finding one. Why? "If it's possible to recycle," he says, "you owe it to the Earth to do it."

Fortunately, businessman Richard Morgan--who owns Morgan Imports and the buildings that house nearby Pop's restaurant and Fowler's Grocery--got wind of the salvaged lumber. Even though he wouldn't save any money by using recycled materials, Morgan liked the historic look. At first, he planned to buy only enough to renovate his own properties. In the end, he, too, chose to gamble, buying and re milling all the lumber with hopes of finding a buyer.

As luck would have it, Morgan sold all the wood he didn't use to Blue Devil Ventures, a company developing West Village (apartments and retail buildings) in downtown Durham. As it happens, West Village consists of five buildings once owned by the same company that built the now-demolished tobacco warehouses: Liggett & Myers.

Such stories don't happen every day in the Triangle--to say the least. Almost 330,000 tons of C&D waste were buried in Wake, Durham and Orange counties in fiscal year '97-'98, according to Judy Kincaid, solid-waste planner for the Triangle J Council of Governments. While some of it comes from old buildings being replaced by new ones, most of the waste is generated by new construction sites. Wake County, with the greatest construction activity and the lowest landfill fees, dumped the most--250,000 tons. Wake, which buries three times the C&D waste of the rest of the Triangle, charges $22 a ton to bury construction waste. Orange County charges $40 a ton, while Durham asks $39.50.

How much is being recycled? Since no records are kept on construction materials that are reused or recycled, accurate figures are hard to come by. But Kincaid's best guess is that the amount of C&D waste recycled now is "way, way, way less than 5 percent." By comparison, about 12 percent of residential waste is being recycled Triangle-wide. While at least some residents are doing their part, most builders clearly are not.

There's no shortage of reasons why construction and demolition waste needs to be recycled. The most obvious, as the Triangle loses acres of open space by the day, is the space required for landfills. According to Judy Kincaid's calculations, the amount of open space lost to C&D waste in Wake County alone would be enough to build a 20- or 30-home suburban subdivision every year.

Besides saving open space, recycling reduces the risk of groundwater contamination--a threat in part because C&D landfill owners aren't required to go to the expense of installing a system for catching liquid waste that flows into the ground.

Bradley Guy, director of the University of Florida's Center for Construction and the Environment, adds another reason: With recycling, local money stays in the local economy. More jobs are created, since recycling is labor-intensive. Most recycled materials are used locally, replacing items that would be shipped in from other regions. Of course, there is also less pollution when there's less energy used for shipping and producing new materials.

"Waste," says Guy, "is something you haven't found a use for yet. Nature recycles waste to be efficient. We also need to be efficient. We are extracting resources from the Earth faster than we can regenerate them."

As the local building boom continues, adding to the supply of C&D waste, there's more and more demand for landfill space. Not only is Orange County looking for new space, but Wake County's C&D landfill in Feltonsville is scheduled to be full in 2002. If the county follows through on its plans, the next C&D site will be part of a larger municipal-waste landfill built near Holly Springs over vocal opposition.

You might think the city of Durham has it all figured out. The city collects C&D waste at a transfer station and ships it out of state. While Durham avoids the aggravation of siting a landfill and losing more open space, burying waste still means a loss of potential recycling revenue that could help pay for recycling services. It also means fewer local materials for building, fewer jobs and more pollution.

Given the far-reaching implications of wasting our waste, how can we make it possible for builders to recycle--without banking on their willingness to take the kinds of calculated risks that Dickens, Klemick and Morgan took?

According to folks like Michele Myers, a Durham builder who specializes in homes with minimal impact on the environment, getting builders to recycle will take three things: training for the building industry, local sites for dropping off recyclables, and higher fees for landfilling C&D waste.

Myers, who makes construction-site recycling a priority in her projects, says her biggest challenge has been in training workers to separate materials so they can be recycled. Local homebuilders associations, she says, have not made great strides in developing this kind of training for builders, subcontractors and workers.

Jim Wahlbrink, executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, acknowledges that despite some early interest, "the industry as a whole has not made much progress in the last year." He agrees that training and drop-off sites are needed as "positive incentives"--but hopes that perhaps a nonprofit will take on the project. But Wahlbrink, not surprisingly, dislikes higher landfill fees--those are "negative incentives," he says.

But what about using that negative incentive to create the positive incentive--dedicating higher fees to pay for that training and additional drop-off sites? "We would have to take a look," Wahlbrink says.

Already, without those "positive incentives," dumping is not necessarily a cheaper alternative to recycling--even in Wake County. According to Kincaid, a 1994 study in Wake County found that 50 percent of the 4 tons of waste generated in building a new, 1700-square-foot home could be recycled for the same cost as dumping--even at Wake's low dumping costs.

Builders of the Environmental Protection Agency's new complex in Research Triangle Park are doing better than that: They're recycling 80 percent of the waste they create at no additional cost. The EPA required the builder to reduce waste, and the builder complied by training workers and providing separate sites for recyclables.

Kincaid believes that most builders could also accomplish an 80 percent recycling rate. But because people are "set in their ways," as she puts it, accomplishing that will take a "mandate or big financial incentive--neither of which exist right now." Kincaid says that a survey shows that 94 percent of Wake's homebuilders are willing to separate recyclable materials, but that "no one is pushing," despite a good number of recycling vendors and plenty of waste-management information readily available.

For those who do recycle on site, the problem becomes where to carry the commodities. Only Orange County staffs a site at its landfill for salvaging C&D waste. By adjusting some of their C&D fees to reflect market conditions, Orange has created a small demand for recycling metals, pallets and lumber that the county sells. Nonprofits and the school system quickly scoop up, at no cost, less salable materials like cinder block, bricks and plastic pipe.

So what'll it take? While the private sector affects the demand for C&D landfill space with the pace of construction, the public sector is responsible for waste management--meaning that Wake County, Orange County and the City of Durham control the supply. Tightening that supply, by raising fees, might be the only way to create market conditions that support transforming C&D waste into C&D commodities.

In fact, a national study conducted by the Center for Construction and the Environment found a correlation between higher C&D landfill fees and a greater emphasis on recycling. Orange County's manager for recycling, Blair Pollack, characterizes the findings succinctly: "A fee of $50 a ton seems to get everyone's attention."

Architects and engineers interested in C&D recycling should take a look at Triangle J's award-winning manual, "WasteSpec." It contains model language for requiring reduction, reuse and recycling of C&D waste. Essentially, the manual provides "boilerplate" language that can be inserted into construction documents, so professionals don't have to reinvent the wheel with each project. Call 558-9343. EndBlock

  • In an area with rapid growth, why can't we recycle more construction materials?

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