Operations Focus: Tricks for Bricks

Features - Operations Focus

Recovering and recycling bricks is a selective process that can ultimately pay off.

November 11, 2013

brick recyclingBrick recycling and crushing is not your normal commodity business. While no recycler would turn down an aluminum can because it had contained Pepsi rather than Budweiser, brick buyers are a very picky lot. Color, age, size and a variety of factors can determine whether a brick is worth a buck or next to nothing and headed for the crusher.

Yet a recycler with a bit of patience and a half-hour on the phone can turn a tipping-fee expense into a revenue-generating project.

A recycler in Milwaukee who has the hard-to-find cream-colored bricks from a building erected before 1900 is sitting on a small windfall. The clay deposits used to fire those bricks were depleted by 1900, and a good quality brick from a 1920s-era building is almost a collector’s item. Such brick will go for $1 each in lots as small as 100 bricks. Even in quantity, a recycler can expect at least 75 cents per brick. The same goes for Louisiana hard red brick that is typically found in the historic districts of New Orleans.

Not so valuable—in fact, comparatively worthless—is face brick or the newer post-1970s brick with holes in it.

“It is not a simple commodity,” explains Tom Svoboda, Vintage Brick Salvage, Rockford, Ill.

If a brick is old, natural clay or natural shale-fired brick, it will fetch a better price than most others.

“Old, solid brick was naturally mined and fired,” Svoboda notes. Today, because of environmental considerations, such material no longer is made, thus, the value of the old bricks.

Color and condition count. Age is not usually a factor, as long as the brick qualifies on other counts.

Not every area is a gold mine. “We find that the value of recycled bricks is relatively low compared to the time and labor expense needed to sort, clean and palletize the material,” says John Costello from Costello Dismantling, West Wareham, Mass.

Costello says the average labor cost in the Northeast typically makes the prospect marginally cost-effective at best. “The market for used bricks seems to be not as strong in the Northeast as it is in other parts of the country, so while markets exist for the product, transportation to market can be very costly,” he adds.

Pricing of bricks, commercially, is usually on a per-thousand basis. Sometimes, especially for rare or high-demand product, it is priced per-brick. In the Chicago area, good brick is going for $50 to $80 per pallet with the seller stacking. The price per brick might be 20 to 23 cents.

A deep red brick in St. Louis will fetch 40 cents, while it might bring only 32 to 35 cents in Chicago. The reason is not shipping cost; rather, it is local market conditions and supply-and-demand factors. “Dark red brick gets more money,” Svoboda says.

Crushing Questions
Not all brick is processed whole. There is a decent market for crushed brick. In this case, shale brick is better than clay-based brick since it is a harder ceramic. Brick dust is in demand for sports stadiums. Brick dust still is a component material for baseball infields.

Several factors go into assessing whether bricks might be eligible for reselling rather than crushing.

“The type of brick, the volume of brick available, the condition of the brick and the area you have to work with on the demolition site are all factors to consider when salvaging the brick for resale,” says Rick Declercq of Green Valley Recycling (GVR), London, Ontario. “The volumes we get at GVR are smaller loads and usually mixed with other demolition materials.”

So, GVR crushes the brick it receives into a granular material for use as a base in parking lots, pathways, roadways or as a general fill.

Costello says his firm typically crushes brick for use as nonstructural backfill, so color is not an issue. “It could be for landscaping products, certainly,” he says, adding that brick dust and chips are popular landscaping products.

Fisher Topsoil & Landscape Supplies in London, Ontario, carries a complete line of crushed product. Most of the crushed material goes into landscaping. “We go through a lot of it,” says Henry Giesbrecht of Fisher Topsoil.

Clean product is a must. “For crushers that are crushing brick for use as landscape products, you would always be removing all other demolition/construction debris that would contaminate the finished product,” Declercq says. “For our granular crushing processing, we remove any demolition/construction debris, such as metals, paper, wood or plastics.”

Lack of contaminants is one of the selling points for GVR’s granular product. GVR says it tries to assure there are sufficient fines in the material so it can be compacted properly and with ease. GVR’s granular product does not require color separation.

“We crush all brick into a granular for use as a granular base,” Declercq says. “However,” he notes, “Some landscape centers have different colored crushed brick that are used as a cover material on landscape areas.”

GVR usually does not use a screen for its granular product. “If you are making a colored crushed brick cover for landscape areas, a minimum of three decks would be required if you want to do it in one pass,” Declercq says.

“The dimensions of a brick make it so they can often slip through the jaws of our jaw crusher whole,” Costello says. “An impacter has better results when crushing brick.”

Importance of Color
“Color makes a difference,” Svoboda says. Eleven years ago when he started in business, he says he could not sell a yellow brick to save his life. Today, yellow Chicago brick is a viable commodity.

“Orange is a bad word,” he continues. But red-orange is OK in today’s market.

In a city like Detroit—where it seems they are tearing down half of the city—there is a hard, natural clay brick with rather homogenous color. Given that the supply is enormous and the coloring is not too interesting for projects, the brick is not very valuable.

Costello finds that dark red, waterstruck bricks are the most desirable. “Salmon-colored brick or inner-course backer bricks are not desirable and have a limited resale market,” he says.

“Anything that looks too homogenous will not sell,” Svoboda says. “You need a little variation in shade.”

Landscaping applications are a different story, however. “Individuals buying crushed brick for landscaping purposes are likely looking for uniform color, sizing and that there are no contaminants,” says Declercq.

Other Concerns
Shipping brick is not a trivial concern when it comes to bricks. Keep in mind that a solid, hard, red brick will weigh more than other bricks—especially today’s bricks that are produced with hollow cores.

A buyer of bricks for reuse will be concerned about how well the brick will clean. That refers to removing the mortar that was used in construction to keep the bricks in place. A hard mortar is quite difficult to clean.

Whether lime- or cement-based mortar was used and the quality and color of the brick are major factors affecting reuse, according to Costello.

While he says cement-based mortar is extremely hard to clean from the brick, old lime mortars tend to fall apart as the building is knocked down.

Vintage Brick Salvage avoids painted brick, mainly because of the potential for lead contamination. That, however, does not mean the brick is totally unusable in some reclamation projects.

“Bricks from a building that was painted still have one good side,” Svoboda notes. Simply flipping them around will make them usable. However, for interior decorating use as tile, a painted brick is of little use. “I want to see two good sides on every brick,” Svoboda says in that case.

Other companies are looking at expanding into the market. “We are in the discussion stage right now,” says Colby Karr, operations manager at Silver Creek Materials (SCM), Fort Worth, Texas. SCM is a combined recycling and mining operation. Most of the material SCM handles is concrete, not brick, but Karr sees potential with bricks. “We see all of this raw material and think that there has to be a market out there,” he says.

“Unfortunately, a lot of stuff gets dumped,” Svoboda says. “Too much of it is wasted.”

Svoboda says 2014 should be a good year for bricks. “The market seems decent. Demand is not outstripping supply. Everything is about even,” he says.

Whatever the market, Costello says uniform color, lack of contaminants and uniform sizing are important for a marketable product.


The author is a freelance writer living in the Cleveland area. He can be contacted at curt@curtharler.com.