For the last decade, recyclers of construction and demolition (C&D) materials have heard zero waste is the goal. But in the current environment of record-breaking volumes coupled with limited markets, many experts are beginning to reconsider whether this is a realistic expectation.
Ten years ago, after spending millions of dollars on C&D processing facilities, some recyclers lost sleep waiting for materials to arrive to keep lines running as they carefully worked to reclaim materials to keep their end markets supplied.
At the time, experts were talking about peak oil and didn’t anticipate the introduction of cheap, clean-burning shale gas to the market or increased air quality regulations. Today, many in the industry cringe when viewing the line to the scales with a careful eye on daily tonnage limits, all the while wondering how they’re going to move end products. With these issues, a focus on the beneficial use of materials can become secondary.
Yet, an encouraging trend for the long term is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) emphasis on sustainable materials management (SMM). According to the EPA, “SMM is a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire lifecycle. It represents a change in how our society thinks about the use of natural resources and environmental protection.”
According to the EPA, an SMM approach seeks to:
- Use materials in the most productive way with an emphasis on using less.
- Reduce toxic chemicals and environmental impacts throughout the material lifecycle.
- Assure we have sufficient resources to meet the needs of today as well as in the future.
For guidance on SMM, EPA is shifting toward life-cycle assessments (LCA), which take a holistic view of the production and consumption of a product or service by assessing its impacts on the environment through its entire lifecycle. In addition to providing an SMM framework, LCAs provide planners with guidelines when writing bid specifications that designate materials to be recycled.
The good news is that as LCAs continue to become an industry focal point through a greater emphasis on sustainably managing materials, we’ve learned that recycled C&D materials included into new products almost always have a better value than virgin materials. For this reason, the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA) has contracted with the University of Florida to produce LCAs to help find new homes for reclaimed C&D products.
Clearing the tip floor
Balancing incoming tonnage and the need to find end markets is a unique challenge to the recycling industry. Competitive virgin material suppliers extract or order the components they need in sufficient quantities to fill orders. C&D processors, conversely, open their doors each day uncertain of the material they will receive but with a mandate to move the materials out quickly in some capacity.
If processors are paying to dispose of fines and residuals, and there is little market for mixed wood, what is the LCA value of processing mixed waste? Reclaimed wood is critical to the economic success of most mixed C&D processors, and biomass end markets have diminished as plants fall victim to a combination of cheap energy and regulations.
Yet, as the U.S. has struggled with wood markets, one can simply look abroad to see examples of countries innovating to find uses for these materials. Case in point, the Templeborough Biomass Power Plant is a new 41-megawatt biomass power plant that was funded and built in the United Kingdom. The plant has an annual processing capacity of 270,000 tons and is capable of using waste wood, including contaminated wood, without pretreatment as a fuel source.
Another innovative company based in the U.K. is the Sheehan Group, which, through its investment in a CDE Global C&D washing plant, has diverted hundreds of thousands of metric tons of C&D waste from landfill by reprocessing it into recycled aggregates that are used to make products like concrete masonry blocks that can be sold to contractors for construction projects.
Countrystyle Recycling is a new 100,000-ton-per-year gypsum drywall recycling plant in the U.K. that processes demolition materials. Through its closed-loop partnership with the adjacent Knauf drywall manufacturing facility, Countrystyle is creating new uses for drywall and providing convenient solutions for processors—something that few, if any, recyclers are permitted to do in the U.S.
Cheaper disposal and different legal and regulatory standards in the U.S. mean the same solutions may not be sustainable here. But the point is that solutions exist and can be adapted to the U.S. market if we’re able to think about better ways to recycle these materials into beneficial products.
Feeling the burn
On the pyrolysis front, the recently published book “Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth” looks beyond renewable biomass or carbon capture energy systems to offer a bigger and bolder vision for the next phase of human progress: moving carbon from waste sources to help replace fossil fuels and rebuild infrastructure.
Research at the National University of Singapore has found that when used as an admixture in concrete and mortar, biochar-sequestered carbon reduced set time, improved early compressive strength and reduced water permeability.
Additionally, research shows that concerns about contaminants in biochar feedstocks might be alleviated when encapsulated in concrete as opposed to used as a soil amendment.
Coming together to find solutions
There might not be a single one-size-fits-all solution for improving access to markets, but when considered together, there is a significant opportunity to advance the use of recycled materials.
However, the concept of real-world sustainability must begin at C&D recycling facilities as we work to create innovative products to solve our challenges while simultaneously growing our business and industry.
Our current challenges clearly call for “outside the box” thinking, but this industry has many brilliant minds with countless years of operating experience. If we continue to innovate, collaborate and advance, we can solve these problems together and look forward to a day in the near future where a line at our inbound scales will be viewed as an opportunity, not a potential headache.
Terry Weaver is the president of the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA) and is also the president and general manager of Denver, Pennsylvania-based USA Gypsum.