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The word plastic may be associated with credit card debt, but for C&D recyclers plastic materials are becoming less of a liability.

May 13, 2013
Brian Taylor

Recyclers of mixed C&D materials may focus on wood, aggregates, metals and other common building materials, but most also find they end up accepting a wide variety and considerable amounts of plastic.

A session the 2013 Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) Convention & Exposition, held April 9-13 at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., titled “Plastic from Construction and Demolition Debris,” two C&D recyclers offered presentations on how their companies handle inbound plastic materials.

Paul Degnan of E.L. Harvey & Sons, Westborough, Mass., and Todd Byrum of Butler Paper Recycling, Suffolk, Va., each provided attendees with knowledge gained from their experiences of seeking end markets for plastics generated at construction and demolition jobsites.

A Genuine Mix

Many C&D recyclers already deal with an incoming stream that is a thorough blend of materials and items that are destined to be sorted through a multistep automated system.

The numerous types of plastics represent a subsection of this stream that can itself be thoroughly mixed, with items of different shapes and sizes and made from many different resins or polymers.

The author of this article, who served as moderator of the ISRI session, provided a partial list of plastic items commonly found in the C&D stream, including:

  • Carpet and padding;
  • Plastic films;
  • Tarps and sheets;
  • PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe;
  • PVC siding;
  • Drywall and paint pails;
  • Corrugated tubing for irrigation and drainage applications;
  • Plastic and composite fencing and decking; and
  • PET (polyethylene terephthalate) water and soda bottles

Materials such as these are likely to continue to be generated in greater amounts if or when the construction industry experiences a rebound.

For recyclers, the greater challenge often has been finding end markets so that sorting out and diverting such materials is worth the effort. The green building movement has helped provide an additional incentive to do so, as property developers and their contractors make ongoing requests for the highest recycling rates possible.

Some of these plastic scrap materials, however, are still at the start of their journeys toward becoming commonly traded materials with well-established end markets offering competitive bidding for materials. There are, though, visible signs of progress.

The session’s moderator noted that in 2002, two documentary filmmakers created a movie called “Blue Vinyl.” One of the topics of the film is the difficulty in finding a recycling destination for the vinyl siding removed from a Long Island, N.Y., home.

One decade later this magazine ran a cover story on vinyl siding recycler Shermans Valley Recycling, Loysville, Pa. (See “Humble But Hungry,” starting on page 26 of the September/Octber 2012 issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling.) Both Degnan and Byrum also singled out Shermans Valley as having provided a welcome destination for the vinyl siding scrap of their respective companies.

Finding established end markets for as many of the different plastic materials entering their facilities presents one of several daily challenges for Degnan and Byrum as they try to increase the plastics recycling rates at their companies.

Outside the Box
Byrum, whose title with Butler Paper Recycling is sustainability consultant, noted the company for which he works is more than 85 years old, with its initial emphasis involving the recycling of cardboard boxes.

The company opened a material recovery facility (MRF) to process mixed materials in 2006. In his role as sustainability consultant, Byrum has encountered customers from the construction and demolition sectors seeking help to find recycling methods for the plastic they generate.

Closer to Home

Both recyclers who spoke at the 2013 Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) Convention & Exposition session titled “Plastic from Construction and Demolition Debris” have done business with scrap vinyl siding processor Shermans Valley Recycling, Loysville, Pa.

And both recyclers, Paul Degnan of E.L. Harvey & Sons, Westborough, Mass., and Todd Byrum of Butler Paper Recycling, Suffolk, Va., commented that shipping materials to such domestic destinations is likely to become more common.

For much of the past decade, recyclers of lower-grade materials, such as mixed plastics and mixed rigid plastics, have commonly loaded such materials into containers bound for China, where manual sorters helped upgrade the scrap for manufacturers hungry for feedstock.

In 2013, as part of a Chinese government initiative called Operation Green Fence, inspections have become more rigorous in China, and shippers have become wary of sending mixed loads there.

As well, both Degnan and Byrum noted, plastic scrap consumers in the United States have shown an increased willingness to buy such materials.

Byrum pointed to consumers in the Southeast United States, who he said “are going to be there a long time.” He also said he prefers to have the ability to quickly fly “or even drive to” these consumers when questions arise, rather than the often difficult process of settling a difference with a customer several thousand miles away.

Degnan said his company also has taken advantage of “more opportunities [to work with] domestic markets” and predicted E.L. Harvey would likely engage in “more sorting and less exporting” of plastic scrap in the near future.

One of Byrum’s challenges, he said, is regional. “Virginia is a trash state,” he stated, noting that the state is a net importer of solid waste and that its tipping fees can be as low as $23 per ton.

Despite the low cost of landfilling, global demand for plastic scrap has created export markets as well as a desire by manufacturers in the United States to use recycled content in their products, said Byrum.

Among the materials Byrum and Butler Paper have worked with are plastic films, vinyl siding and fencing, drums and barrels, carpet and padding and a collection of pails, trash cans, bins and containers often placed together in a category called mixed rigid plastics.

The mixed rigid material has become more marketable in the past few years, said Byrum, who also noted that some 465,000 tons of this material was recovered for recycling in 2011.

Baling such materials can require considerable compression force and can generate dust if drywall buckets are not cleaned out, said Byrum, but doing so has been worthwhile for Butler Paper Recycling. “This really has been a good niche for us,” he said. “The volume of [paper] is down. You can’t run a plant just baling cardboard.”

Byrum said plastic films can be “excessively dirty,” depending on the application, but that the material can be baled and exported.

Carpet foam, if kept clean and dry, can “bale nicely,” according to Byrum. He says Butler Paper has a direct outlet, but the pricing for the material can be volatile.

Sustainable Push

E.L. Harvey & Sons celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, noted Degnan, but the company is still moving nimbly to address new recycling challenges. The company’s roots are in paper recycling, though it has operated a mixed C&D recycling facility since 2007.

As has Byrum in Virginia, Degnan is working with corporate clients in New England because of “a big sustainability push.” New England also has the added recycling incentives of high landfill costs, with an average of $70 per ton, according to Degnan. In Massachusetts there are landfill bans on many materials, though these have not yet been extended to most of the plastics generated at construction and demolition sites.

For these two reasons as well as the green building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED) scorecard system, “any time you can mine materials out of that waste stream, the better off you are,” said Degnan.

“We see a lot of pails and old buckets,” said Degnan regarding one of form of plastic entering the E.L. Harvey mixed C&D facility.

Such materials increasingly have a domestic home rather than having to be exported, Degnan said. “There is a significant transformation right now—there are more opportunities for regrinders here, and domestic markets have definitely developed,” he commented.

“There have been significant investments” made in plastic scrap grinding, reprocessing and consumption in the United States, said Degnan. “The demand for postconsumer resins is really driving this; there has been a big push.”

Degnan said just 33 percent of rigid plastic scrap was being recycled when E.L. Harvey opened its mixed C&D MRF in 2007, but by 2010 that recycling rate had grown to 61 percent.

For vinyl siding, Degnan commented that Shermans Valley now has competition for this material. End markets for PVC piping, however, have been slower to develop. The recyclers who handle vinyl siding, for instance, “don’t want it,” Degnan commented.

Although clean carpet or padding may have end markets that can work, Degnan said of carpet, “It’s nothing you want to pull out of a mixed C&D load; it needs to be source separated at the job site.”

Building products maker Armstrong, Lancaster, Pa., has been trying to establish a market for end-of-life vinyl composite tile (VCT), which Degnan said “is commonly used in large retail stores.” The tiles can be put into Gaylord boxes at job sites, he said, and shipped to an Armstrong VCT manufacturing plant in Illinois.

Forward Path
Plenty of problematic plastic items still are flowing into mixed C&D plants that still may head for the landfill.

But both speakers at the ISRI convention session said they saw progress being made and have been part of efforts to successfully divert material from the landfill to suitable recycling destinations.

E.L. Harvey is investing to expand its mixed C&D plant, according to Degnan. “We see ourselves doing more sorting and less exporting,” he stated.

Byrum also was bullish about domestic markets. “There are a lot of consumers of [scrap] plastics in the southeastern U.S., and they’re going to be there a long time,” he remarked.

Finding the right end markets can require considerable detective work, Byrum added. “You have to inquire—that’s what I’ve been doing.”

The conversations, however, often yield the desired results. “People have been very receptive,” said Byrum. “To some extent in this industry, everyone’s in it together.”


The author is editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.