How COVID is impacting C&D recycling

How COVID is impacting C&D recycling

At a Sept. 15 WasteExpo Together Online session titled “C&D and COVID-19: Where do we go from here?” a panel of industry experts discussed how ramifications from the pandemic have influenced the C&D industry at large.

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September 15, 2020

While COVID-19’s impact pertaining to amplified residential and diminished commercial volumes has been well documented, its specific effect on the C&D material stream hasn’t garnered as much attention.

At a Sept. 15 WasteExpo Together Online session titled “C&D and COVID-19: Where do we go from here?” a panel of industry experts discussed how ramifications from the pandemic have influenced the industry at large.

Moderated by Clark-Floyd Landfill LLC VP of Engineering & Environmental Affairs Bruce Schmucker, the session also featured Interior Removal Specialist Inc. (IRS) Director of Environmental Affairs Richard Ludt, Dem-Con Companies President Bill Keegan, and AMP Robotics founder and CEO Matanya Horowitz.

“Demo got hit hard when the governor of California announced a Safer at Home order for the state,” Ludt says regarding IRS’s operations, which focus on interior demolition of commercial spaces in the Los Angeles area. “We lost about 90 percent of our work overnight. And then in the coming weeks when it was determined construction was an essential activity, we got a fair amount of it back, but there are still some pretty significant issues going on with construction right now.”

Ludt says that IRS has embraced the Recycling Certification Institute’s certification, which evaluates recycling facilities by not just the percentage of weight diverted from landfill, but also the percentage by commodity diverted from landfill.

Ludt says that one way COVID has impacted operations is by forcing recyclers to reduce the number of manual sorting personnel in their facilities due to the inability to social distance staff. Because this reduced efficiency is hindering facilities’ ability to meet LEED diversion mandates, he says the USGBC is taking a facility’s diversion numbers from the 6 months prior to COVID into account when giving credit to those using these sites.  

Keegan says that Dem-Con’s Minnesota-based C&D recovery facility, which specializes in recovering wood, metals, cardboard and aggregate, processes approximately 50,000 to 60,000 tons of C&D per year. The site’s operations were declared an essential service in late March and subsequently were allowed to continue, but the facility looks much different today in how it operates, Keegan says.

“Our response to the pandemic has included creating a COVID action plan, and we’re getting all too familiar with terms like social distancing, but we’ve implemented that,” he says. “We have hygiene and respiratory practices so we have mandatory facemasks, regular cleaning of the facility multiple times a day, we’ve added breakroom and lunchroom areas, … we’ve also set up worker pods [that group smaller numbers of workers together rather than have them comingled] and created those so we’re limiting exposure at the facility, we’ve reduced common touchpoints and moved to ticketless transactions and reduced the use of manual time clocks as well, and we’ve reduced the use of refrigerators, microwaves and other shared spaces.”

Keegan says while Dem-Con hasn’t had any workers test positive for COVID yet, it’s a matter of “when” not “if.” Nonetheless, he notes the company has been vigilant in adapting to a new way of doing business.

Keegan points to U.S. housing starts, which were up 160 percent from April to July, as a positive indicator of ramped up activity on the residential side that he forecasts will last into 2021. Conversely, commercial real estate has been down an average of 25 percent with hospitality being down 47 percent, he notes.

At Dem-Con’s facility, Keegan says volumes of C&D tons were up 20 percent year over year into July. He attributes this to ongoing projects continuing operation, while acknowledging that the third and fourth quarters aren’t looking as favorable and he projects volumes to be down overall into 2021.

Although he notes that Dem-Con has strong local end markets for wood, the wood tons recovered at the facility have been down this year, which threatens the company’s bottom line being one of the more high-value commodities. He did say, however, that he couldn’t attribute this directly to COVID.

On ferrous tons recovered, Dem-Con was up in Q1 and Q2 over last year, but Keegan says markets are lower in general. Again, he says it is too early to attribute this directly to COVID.

Going forward, Horowitz says he thinks investment in AI and robotic sorting technology can help mitigate some of the unpredictable staffing issues C&D recyclers are seeing, including safety-related ones unique to COVID.

He also says robotics can help facilities better distance workers without sacrificing throughput.

While these systems were initially designed for single-stream applications, Horowitz notes they are now coming online to help facilities with both staffing and cash flow issues stemming from commodity swings in C&D facilities.

“Initially our focus had been on all these different types of single-stream materials, but now, we’ve found that pretty much the same technology is able to learn and distinguish a large fraction of materials in the construction and demolition world. This can be anything from aggregate to wood and this shows the promise of the technology.”