A Concrete Solution

City moves to recycle "C&D" waste a bin at a time

A city ordinance would require builders to recycle part of their construction debris.
A city ordinance would require builders to recycle part of their construction debris. (Photo by John Anderson)

Imagine – if you can – an old apartment complex being torn down to make way for a new, mixed-use building. As the old complex is taken apart, building components – broken concrete, crumbled Sheetrock, waterlogged ceiling tiles – are dumped into roll-off boxes on the job site. As the new building rises, those boxes continue to be filled with wood and metal scraps, carpet trimmings, and the packaging from glass and fixtures. When the project's finished, where does it all go?

Right now, much of it goes to area landfills. Austin Resource Recovery staff estimate that construction and demolition (C&D) waste constitutes 20-30% of the materials going to landfills, roughly 275,000 tons in fiscal year 2013. Today, City Council is expected to vote to initiate code amendments for an ordinance requiring builders to recycle at least part of their waste, with a final ordinance anticipated to return to Council for a vote by late 2015.

As currently conceived, the ordinance would require projects to divert a certain amount of the material, calculated by weight. The project must either send at least half of the materials to salvage, reuse, or recycling, or dispose of no more than 2.5 pounds per square foot. The requirements would become stricter in 2020 and 2030; large construction or renovation projects would be affected initially, with smaller projects phased in by 2020. Commercial and multifamily demolition projects would be affected first, with single-family residential projects folded in later.

The framework for the ordinance was developed over the past year by Resource Recovery staff, with input from the Zero Waste Advisory Commission (ZWAC) and people in the industry. Some of the concepts are patterned after the existing Austin Energy Green Building program, which rates participating projects on their sustainability. For new commercial and multifamily projects, the AEGB program requires that 50% of materials are diverted from landfills. In certain parts of the city – the Domain, Mueller, and areas zoned Central Business District or Downtown Mixed Use – participation in the program is required. Elsewhere, it's voluntary.

Stakeholders from the construction and waste management industries have been included in the ordinance development process, but Harry Savio says the Home Build­ers Association of Greater Austin still questions the potential cost. Savio, the association's senior vice president for public policy, says the industry's ability to build affordable housing has been crushed under the weight of local regulations. Sorting materials at a job site will require not only labor, but space for multiple containers that often isn't available, and a "single stream" option that collects all materials in one bin and sorts them later will likely incur higher processing fees. "Bottom line, it's a factor of cost," he said. "What is that going to be, how will it be incurred, and who will pay?"

Other questions have arisen about whether Austin has the infrastructure to support the new rules. Woody Raine, a senior planner in Resource Recovery, who's led the ordinance development process, says the AEGB program has created a demand for the same businesses the ordinance requires: haulers that collect the debris, and processors that separate the materials for recycling.

There's no lack of processors, says Steve Shannon, the municipal marketing manager for Progressive Waste Solutions, which operates a C&D landfill southeast of Austin and a C&D recycling operation that processed 46,000 tons of material last year. "The challenge is the end-user market. There are already humungous piles of material sitting around in the county" that technically have been diverted from landfills, but have no interested buyers.

Government regulation and private industry will have to work in tandem to fix that, says Dave Sullivan, a member of ZWAC and chair of the commission's Construction and Demolition Ordinance Reform Committee. "The investors and inventors that are out there will not come up with a new idea or product unless they think there's a market for it," he says. "So if the government steps up and says, 'We want less emissions from cars,' then the investors and inventors will develop new products to reduce emissions. And if government says 'we want to recycle C&D materials,' then the investors and inventors will realize money is to be made, step up and develop technology, and push in that direction. There is a partnership where both sides, public and private, have to go forward."

Resource Recovery and ZWAC hope the city's eco-industrial park (see "City Plans '[re]Manufacture' for Landfill," Aug. 8) will create a market for the materials by recruiting businesses to remanufacture them into other products. End-use markets are the right place to focus, Shannon says. "If they can host people at the industrial park that take Sheetrock or wood waste and turn it into a salable product, that's the piece that's missing, and the opportunity for the city to help make this work."

To address these concerns, ZWAC requested that two studies be conducted after the ordinance is implemented but before the standards are raised in 2020 and 2030. One will examine whether the cost of housing has been significantly affected. The other will evaluate the markets by gauging whether piles of unsalable materials are accumulating, or whether materials are being shipped to distant destinations for re-use. "Piling it up is just landfilling it somewhere else," Sullivan says. "Shipping it away has a large carbon footprint. That doesn't pass our test."

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Austin Resource Recovery, construction and demolition waste, Zero Waste Advisory Commission, Austin Energy Green Building Program, Harry Savio, Homebuilders Association of Austin, Woody Raine, Progressive Waste Solutions, Dave Sullivan, Steve Shannon

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