Some Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) recycling projects might better be called a game of Truth or Consequences. Knowledgeable people look at the reported recycling figures and just shake their heads. While most players do toe the line, a number of major companies and organizations are taking steps to assure that everyone plays the LEED recycling game correctly and honestly.
That said, there is some concern—by everyone from architects to contractors to recyclers—that U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) LEED certification is becoming almost more cumbersome than it is worth. Corporations like to be green. They love to save electricity and brag about recycling C&D materials. They hate the cost and time of documenting it all.
Despite the added paperwork involved, LEED recycling efforts appear to be working. “The fact of the matter is that the technology is there,” says Kevin Herb, president of Industrial Disposal Services Inc. (IDS) and managing partner of Broad Run Recycling LLC, Manassas, Va. “You can take waste and turn it into whatever you want. The markets are there.”
IDS was founded in 2008 and runs a C&D recycling facility and transfer station. “We recycle 95 percent of what comes into the facility,” Herb says.
Herb says he is pleased that interest in LEED-compliant C&D recycling has grown. “It’s long overdue,” he says.
Contractors also want accurate numbers. Michael Deane, vice president and chief sustainability officer for the giant Turner Construction Co. in New York City says his firm requires C&D recyclers report activity at least monthly using Turner’s online waste tracking (OWT) system. “We sometimes have minimum diversion requirements (either set as project goals or set by local regulation) but mostly ask for best efforts and maximum diversion for the locality, as market capabilities and constraints can vary,” he says.
“Accurate documentation in a form acceptable to USGBC is the basis for our system and is essential,” Deane emphasizes. He says that, since 2009, more than 50 percent of Turner’s total project volume has been LEED work. Turner has more than 600 certified and registered projects. Since 2005, it has required all projects—not just LEED projects—to report waste diversion using OWT.
While Deane fully backs recycling of C&D material, Herb says he has concerns about recycling industry outsiders setting the rules. Even Environmental Protection Agency officials, who recently developed rules about C&D wood, rarely get out of their offices in Washington, D.C., and do not understand the business, he says.
Jason Haus, chief executive officer of Dem-Con Cos., Shakopee, Minn., also has concerns about recycling activities in the area his company operates in. “I have always regarded our market area as unique,” he says. “In the Twin Cities, we have multiple private C&D processing facilities that were started by private business folks without the rules and regulations that require facilities like these to be built.”
While recyclers like Haus and Herb place importance on reporting legitimate numbers, concerns about false reporting among some recyclers has prompted the C&D recycling industry to take action.
“There are a number of C&D recyclers who are scammers or sham recyclers who report wild numbers,” says Stephen Bantillo, executive director of the Recycling Certification Institute (RCI, formerly the Institute for Certification of Sustainable Recyclers, or ICSR), Sacramento, Calif.
A program like RCI’s gives any company or municipality the ability to audit recycling figures and be assured that a C&D recycling operation does what it says it does, he says. As far back as the 1990s, Bantillo worked with San Jose, Calif., on a C&D certification program.
“From the LEED perspective, they want to be sure the C&D recycling reported actually happened,” Bantillo says.
Currently, RCI offers the only facility certification protocols approved under LEED, though that may change with the expected adoption of LEED V4, the newest version of the certification.
Falsely reporting recycling rates is “a constant concern,” Deane says. “Our reported diversion rates are exemplary (averaging more than 73 percent overall since 2005 and recently approaching 90 percent),” he says.
However, as the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Mixed loads being separated off site are of particular concern with regard to exaggerating results, Deane says, because a visual analysis is at best a “guesstimate” and is accepted on the honor system. According to Deane, there is not a reliable and cost-effective way to accurately measure let alone weigh individual mixed loads.
“I do not like facility averages because I want project-specific data,” Deane continues. “The one thing I know is that, if I use an average, it will be wrong for my project, rendering the data useless for analysis and projections.”
At IDS and Broad Run trucks are weighed as they come into the facility. Mass balance tables are recorded. After compiling a year’s worth of data, Broad Run was certified in 2012 by what was then the ICSR.
About 90 percent of the waste Broad Run handles is from LEED projects. “At the moment, we are the only ones in the country certified to do this,” says Herb.
Because the business is certified, a few questions have been raised about the legitimacy of its figures. Herb offers doubters a site tour to resolve lingering questions.
ICSR changed its name to RCI in May. Bantillo says the name change more accurately reflected the group’s mission: Rather than certify sustainability, it was certifying facilities and recycling rates.
The goal of RCI is to give any group, such as the USGBC or a local government, a third party to rely upon for certification and accurate numbers rather than reinventing the wheel.
Dem-Con offers a monthly worksheet so customers can accurately track their materials as they are hauled and recycled at the recycling facility.
The board of the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA) has recognized that renegade recyclers would hurt the image of the C&D recycling industry, taking business away from legitimate recyclers. The board voted to fund the development of Certification of Recycling Rates (CORR) program available through the Recycling Certification Institute (RCI). It is the only ISO-level, third-party certification program available to credibly certify the recycling rates of C&D recycling facilities. It not only provides certification of the numbers, but also a standard reporting methodology.
In a future version of LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council says CORR would be the only program it will recognize as being credible enough for a project to earn one point for using a certified facility. The CORR is designed to provide a standard across the country which provides better information for entities hiring local consultants that may not be versed in the C&D recycling industry.
The Recycling Certification Institute (RCI) operates independently of the CDRA in order to provide arms’ length certification for CDRA members as well as any facility that wishes to become certified.
“I do believe that the USGBC is vulnerable on some projects where the data could not be supported to the level of recycling that was reported,” Haus says. “It is a challenge that our industry faces,” he continues. “The CDRA (Construction & Demolition Recycling Association) is facing that challenge head on by supporting the ICSR.
“Prior to ICSR, there was no process nationwide to help legitimate facilities provide verifiable data by a third party,” Haus explains. “There are a lot of facets to the USGBC, and if the ICSR organization can provide them with some assurances on facility data, it mitigates the risk. The USGBC has yet to require this type of certification, and the CDRA pushed for this in the latest draft; but, to our knowledge it was not incorporated.”
Haus continues, “I believe that the recycling numbers in our market areas by the facilities are not false in the sense that the numbers are fictitious. The challenge we have in our marketplace is that all processing companies compute their numbers in a different manner. This may include producing numbers for each month, which is what Dem-Con does, versus other facilities using annual numbers or 12-month rolling average numbers, etc. The challenge for the users of the information is that everyone uses a different way to calculate a number that the user thinks is the same.”
In other parts of the country, however, the situation may be more suspect. “It has come to our attention from the CDRA perspective, that some recyclers around the U.S. are providing recycling rates that are just not attainable with the equipment that they employ at their facilities, and some produce very high recycling rates without the use of equipment or source separation,” Haus says.
For those types of companies, the rates may well be fictitious, and concern about legitimacy is valid.
RCI offers two levels of participation in its program. One establishes that a C&D recycling operation is “for real” and does engage in legitimate business practices. The other fully certifies C&D recycling plants. The certification process includes site visits by auditors who are being recruited and trained from processors, haulers, government agencies and others in the recycling field.
“I hope to see more than 100 companies on the list with a 50-50 split between registered and certified operations,” Bantillo says. An online registration process available on RCI’s website, www.recyclingcertification.org, makes it easier for C&D recycling facility operators to get started and to complete most of the paperwork in the virtual world, he adds. At the same time, the software will alert RCI if there are any sudden jumps in reported numbers by a certified operation. This will not disqualify a C&D recycling operation but may attract further scrutiny.
In any case, C&D recyclers must recertify yearly, with the initial certification valid for five years. After five years, the C&D recycling firm must go through the full certification process again.
“Our website will serve as a kind of Yellow Pages, as well,” Bantillo says.
Worth the Effort?
Dem-Con has had a reduced number of LEED jobs in light of the requirements and cost of LEED, Haus says.
“It is felt by many that the cost of going LEED is at the tipping point of the value proposition,” Haus continues. With that said, he still has many more projects for which the owners want to know that their materials are recovered to the best of the market’s ability. “That volume has continued to rise over the past few years,” he says.
In some areas of the country, local governments also require certain items to be recovered. However, within that framework, those government agencies do not have the resources to enforce those requirements, according to Haus. He says he believes industry and government would be better served by a certification program.
“I think one thing that LEED has missed the boat on is looking at the end of life of materials,” Haus says. “They put a lot of time and energy into efficient products, environmentally safe manufacturing, not as much dedication into the end of life.
One example Haus gives is with concrete. It is a highly recyclable product, yet the USGBC promotes the use of Styrofoam-style concrete forms, he says. These forms have plastic fasteners that penetrate the concrete. When the foundations are removed at a future demolition, it becomes a less-than-desirable recycled concrete in light of plastic contamination. “That is only one example, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Haus says.
Recycling rates and materials recycled can vary greatly depending on cost and availability of land, tipping fees (inversely related), maturity of the local recycling industry and end-use markets. Turner says he even finds a wide disparity of results from the same company in different markets.
Deane says, “Our ability to recycle depends far more on the capabilities of the local markets (and local regulations) than anything we do on site. In large urban areas,” he continues, “we can achieve very good results. Rural areas, not so much.”
“When are we going to stop measuring the percentage of material recycled (which rewards recycling a large percentage of a lot of waste) and start encouraging elimination of waste by design (which would incentive reducing the total volume of waste in the first place)?” Deane asks. The goal, he concludes, is closing the loop, eliminating the idea of “waste” and instead thinking of waste as a resource.
The author is a freelance writer living in the Cleveland area. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.