Building an industry: The evolution of C&D recycling

Industry leaders discuss the history, growth and future of demolition and C&D recycling.

A lot has changed in the construction and demolition (C&D) recycling industry since Construction & Demolition Recycling’s predecessor publicationC&D Recycler, debuted in 1999. We talked with a panel of industry experts about how the industry has shifted over the years and what new changes might be on the horizon.

Construction & Demolition Recycling (C&DR): How have you seen the emphasis on—and mentality pertaining to—C&D recycling change over the last couple of decades?

Troy Lautenbach, president of Lautenbach Industries, Mount Vernon, Washington: Governments and the building industry we serve are asking for, and pushing to see, more C&D recycling. They understand the value both from an environmental and economic perspective. What are the differences in how these materials are handled and processed now versus in the past? Many companies originating before the 2000s started with the “ground sort and pick methods” and then graduated to a sort line. We are now seeing the effects of technology through the years of research and development, which has resulted in better screening methods, robots and automation, as well as more efficient and higher yield operations.

Paul Kuhar, vice president of Champion Waste & Recycling Services, Dallas: I have been involved in the waste and recycling business since 1995, and back then, the only construction recycling that we really dealt with was concrete, metal or wood separation, which was very limited on job sites. Everything back then was treated like waste and loaded into one container and taken to the landfill. Materials that were separated had to be exceptionally clean or they would be rejected, so contractors would not want to waste the time to perform the separation. For Champion, it really started to change in 2007 when contractors starting inquiring if there was a better way to manage LEED jobs with commingled construction programs. At the time, we were only doing source separation for very few select contractors who had to separate due to LEED and had no options to perform a commingled program. In the early years, it was all source separation with materials that were very easy to capture and separate. However, as building requirements changed, LEED building became more prevalent and commingled containers were the future—technology really helped that become reality.

Leonard Cherry, president of Cherry Cos., Houston: We have seen the general public’s mindset shift from expressing the desire of a consumer society to that of a sustainable society. As a result, government attention has continually increased to focus on accomplishing that goal of sustainability. Unfortunately, we have also seen an increase in regulation that ultimately hampers the progress of achieving that goal.

Steve Hosier, vice president of demolition at Veit, Rogers, Minnesota: In the last 28 years, I personally have not seen a significant change in the style of recycling on building demolition projects. I believe demolition contractors are unrecognized pioneers and the recycling industry was competitive by nature well before recycling itself became such a dominant industry. I do not believe this to be true on the construction side of the industry with regards to C&D collection, as there were very few transfer and recycling stations 25 years ago compared to today.

Mark Ramun, director of demolition and decommissioning for Wood, Aberdeen, Scotland: From the contractor’s perspective, little has changed, as they have always emphasized recycling as much as possible to reduce costs. But over the past two decades, owners have become more understanding, often characterizing materials prior to recycling to save money and reduce liabilities associated with potential contaminants that may be at their facility. We see more clients spending time and money upfront to identify materials before recycling begins to avoid risks and publicity that follows if a contaminant is left on-site or improperly handled. Also, due to advancements in equipment and machinery technologies, it’s more cost-effective to recycle material on-site these days, saving money and time when compared to transporting materials off-site.

James Milburn, owner of Milburn LLC, Bellwood, Illinois: In commercial demolition, there have been significant strides made in the last 10 years regarding C&D recycling and diversion from landfill. The ability for our waste hauler and separator companies to segregate and sort materials in order to combine materials and recycle accordingly has allowed them to keep costs down. There have also been many owners and architects requiring certain percentages of recycling by weight on projects. This requires contractors like us to make more of an effort to recycle, even if it comes at an additional cost.

C&DR: What factors do you think have been most impactful in instigating change and making C&D recycling more prevalent?

TL: When I started my company in the 1990s, recycling was demanded by only a few businesses that were willing to pay more to have the materials recycled. The only way I could compete was to have a service that was less expensive than the landfill—a practice still in place today. When fuel went to $5 a gallon for gas and we experienced the Great Recession, businesses started to pay much more attention on how to handle their waste. Other global issues that are now factors that weren’t when I started my business are climate change and plastic pollution problems that have elevated the importance of recycling in the mind of the public.

PK: Education, education, education! We make it a point to explain to clients that recycling costs more money due to the technology and processes involved in operating a recycling facility today. Volume is great, but the need for a facility to be financially sustainable year over year is the main driving force that helps support the industry. We always encourage facility tours and workshops at our plants to help educate our clients, municipalities and LEED consultants on how our process works and why the cost structure is the way it is. Markets can be broken down regionally and even more locally, so costs are always going to vary depending on where you are located in the country.

LC: The most impactful factors are, in no particular order, government support, cost savings and the public’s mindset. The government and pertaining agencies recognize and support both the C&D recycling market and the changes that go with it. The nature of recycling and its market impact reduce costs. For this market to flourish, the public mindset must be one of a desire to consume materials in a more sustainable way.

SH: I believe the LEED requirements pertaining to new building construction have been the most impactful, as they are required on many of the new projects.

MR: Cost is the biggest driver of change. Technological advancements in mobile recycling equipment now allow more materials to either be reused on-site or somewhere close to the project, which has reduced transportation and/or disposal costs significantly.

JM: Cost of recycling, cost of segregation of materials, one-stop sorting facilities and, of course, state and owner requirements for landfill diversion have been the things that have helped spur recycling more than anything.

C&DR: What advancements in technology or equipment do you think have been most impactful in this sector? How so?

PK: I am most excited about the new screening technology that is coming online in C&D recycling plants. The use of vibratory screening and density separation makes processing C&D material more feasible if the volume is there. Present-day technology in the C&D recycling world has become so much more advanced with screening technology, robotic sorting and the ability to process large volumes of material—it’s a game-changer for those that are processors. The ability to separate by type (2D/3D) within a C&D recycling plant is huge because it allows you to introduce material to your sorters or robotic line in a more uniform way, making the sorting process that much more efficient. This efficiency allows an operator to process more material at a much higher recovery rate. Screening fines has also become more important within the sorting facility, and the ability to take these down to a very small size mechanically has been extremely beneficial.

LC: The continued advancement of multiple lines of processing equipment seems to be the most impactful in this particular sector. The most intriguing facet of this is the robotics that are continually being developed to aid us in this industry.

SH: As recycling and transfer stations have evolved, equipment and technology as far as tipping floor logistics and pick-line systems have advanced and become more efficient, which has led to great material quality.

JM: As a demolition contractor, the technological advances we see are not necessarily helping the process of recycling and diverting material. The technology of end-user recycling will help lower costs and allow us to segregate more materials in the field without driving our price up to the point of not being competitive. For example, carpet manufacturers will take carpet tiles if stacked properly on skids, but if they had technology to handle these materials loaded loosely in dumpster or trailer, we would be able to more effectively segregate and direct ship. This is similar with ceiling tile recycling as well.

C&DR: What do you believe are the biggest issues the industry faces today? What more needs to be done to increase the amount or types of C&D materials that typically get recycled?

TL: End markets, cost of labor, lack of available labor and cost of healthcare are all issues that still have to be sorted out. In order to increase the amount getting recycled, there needs to be a greater demand for our products. Governments need to specify our products in their bid demands, and product manufacturers need to consider end-of-life solutions for the products they manufacture by taking this into account during the manufacturing process. If they don’t make that shift, you will continue to see “forced” responsibility through product stewardship programs like you see in electronics, paint and some other markets.

PK: The two most obvious ones that come to mind are end markets and regulatory issues. Operators make the investment to recycle as much material as possible within their market; however, if certain markets do not exist, that material has no place to go but to the landfill. Transportation and economics play a huge role when end markets do exist but simply are too far away for an operator to deliver to. A very sensible approach for any operator is to sort and process the materials that they can market and move consistently with the foresight to always be looking for market opportunities. I believe that more education needs to be done in regard to how we sort and process the materials that come into our plants so that stakeholders that write recycling programs or make decisions on recycling goals can fully understand what it takes to divert this material. We need to come together and look at all the viable options in creating end markets—not simply have these stakeholders write a program that they do not understand and just walk away and leave it up to the operators. We all need to be invested in the process to achieve the overall recycling goal.

LC: One of the biggest issues currently facing this industry is what to do with these recyclable materials once they have been sorted. There is a considerable lack of end markets available. Additionally, we would like to see more people get into the business of recycling. However, at this point, it is largely deemed unprofitable—again, due to the lack of end markets. Until better alternatives are established, finding ways to dispose or reuse materials in an environmentally conscious way that also has financial incentives to drive the free market within the continental U.S. (such as through clean incineration for fuel) is the immediate best answer.

SH: A couple of the most significant issues we face today are finding qualified labor who want to work in the industry and increasing what we’re recycling. Keeping the labor force safe also has a significant impact on the bottom line, and more importantly, the impact on lives of the labor force. I believe we can increase the amount being recycled by using a commonsense approach while regulating certain contaminants—lead paint being one of them.

MR: One of the biggest challenges our clients face is simply knowing what materials they have and whether they can safely be recycled or reused without issues arising later. There are plenty of ways to cost effectively characterize a site with a high degree of accuracy. Unfortunately, we still see hazardous materials that go unidentified and find their way into recycled material streams, raising concerns about liabilities, health and safety, and environmental impacts. The best way to increase the amount or types of C&D materials that get recycled is to have an accurate understanding of what types of materials you have and keep the clean materials from becoming contaminated by hazardous ones during the demolition, deconstruction or handling process.

JM: There is one major enemy to recycling, and that’s always cost. The best way to get past this is for owners to include higher recycling standards in their bid specs in order to have all contractors bid on an “apples to apples” basis. Other ways include governmental mandates on recycling and technology/sorting upgrades. As long as the demolition business stays competitive, I am all in favor of improvements that will increase recycling opportunities.

C&DR: Where are the biggest opportunities in this sector?

TL: We have an opportunity to work with government entities striving to increase diversion and who are interested in alternatives to traditional methods given the National Sword crisis that has impacted curbside recycling. Our industry is domestic and regional in nature. With what we have seen in China, we need to continue to develop our domestic demand for our products and control where we go with our C&D debris. This creates jobs and helps our economy in every region across our nation.

LC: One of the biggest opportunities in this sector would be partnering with the federal government to accomplish the public sector’s goal of sustainability. For example, with clean incineration of used plastics for fuel, there is an open market for a new fuel source.

MR: There have been an increasing number of privately owned nuclear power plants shuttered in recent years. Historically, nuclear sites haven’t generated a great deal of recycled materials. But with new techniques and technologies, materials at these sites can quickly be identified, segregated and safely recycled, minimizing disposal costs and shortening project schedules dramatically.

JM: I believe the biggest opportunities are projects where owners and contractors connect during preconstruction to talk through the feasibility and costs associated with a variety of options. This can lead to improved project planning requirements and the ability to evaluate the cost versus recycling percentage prior to creation of bid specs and awarding contracts. Upfront collaboration is crucial for our business.

C&DR: Where do you see the C&D recycling industry heading in the coming years?

TL: Technology-driven efficiencies, along with end market development, are going to be key in the future. I also would like to see mandates that all C&D debris go through a sort/recycle process before it can go to a landfill if there is capacity within 50 miles of where it was generated.

PK: I see continued advancements in technology and overall program designs to help achieve higher recycling rates within our plants. As we challenge ourselves to recover more material at higher throughput rates, the manufacturers will continue to challenge themselves and adapt to what operators will see in the future. Champion sees a direct connection to C&D recycling and commercial recycling in that the waste streams are very similar and can be processed the same way utilizing the same type of equipment. The future will bring us more hybrid recycling plants that deploy robotic and screening technology that can handle multiple streams of material within a single system to recover high rates of material. In the end, as we focus on more innovative technology, industry stakeholders must also step up in the same way to create end markets within our country that will benefit us and actually close the loop.

LC: We see the future of C&D recycling as a bright one. We believe that sustainability is generational, and we are hopeful that end markets can be established for these materials.

SH: I have seen the C&D recycling industry maintain its current path for quite a few years. It seems there is always a beneficial avenue for reuse, but I believe most of the time, price will always dictate what gets recycled. As a demolition contractor, what I would like to see is for the architects and engineers to not only design for LEED standards and/or order efficiency, but also consider how their designs affect future recycling efforts when the building is being demolished or remodeled.

MR: I think manufacturers will continue to develop products out of safe, clean and environmentally friendly materials and keep finding ways to incorporate recycled materials into their products, making recycled goods an even more valuable commodity.

JM: I believe the C&D recycling industry is headed for major technological advances in the next 10 years. I envision a time where raw materials cost so much that government and manufacturers will drive the need to recycle as much as physically possible and that we will be able to do so in single-source sorting facilities. In this scenario, materials such as drywall, carpet, insulation and ceiling tiles will be able to be easily sorted and recycled off-site to avoid increased cost of demolition activities.

This article originally ran in the July-August issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling. The author is the editor for Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine and can be contacted at

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