Growth results in more construction waste

Across Colorado, and especially the Front Range, surging economic and population growth have stimulated the construction industry. New homes, apartment complexes and buildings are being built while older buildings are being removed or renovated.  This construction activity generates jobs, homes and offices for Coloradans, but at the same time, generates a significant amount of construction and demolition waste. Keeping this C&D waste out of the landfill is a challenge that many communities and organizations are trying to overcome.

According to estimates, nearly 30 percent of all the waste going to the landfill is C&D waste.  The most common materials making up C&D waste includes aggregates, drywall, cardboard, shingles, dimensional lumber and plywood, scrap metal and carpet. While opportunities exist for recycling and reuse of C&D waste, there are a number of challenges that prevent more of this material from being diverted from the landfill.

Lack of recycling facilities

C&D waste is commonly mixed on-site with all waste materials placed in a single container. In order to recycle this waste, it must be sorted, much like how our curbside single stream recyclables are handled. Facilities for sorting C&D waste, called material recovery facilities, are prevalent in states such as California, but there are no official material recovery facilities in Colorado. One of the main reasons for this is that  Colorado’s low landfill tipping fees make it much cheaper for mixed C&D waste to be sent to the landfill rather than processed and recycled. Therefore, there is often little economic incentive to building facilities for sorting mixed C&D.

Colorado does have a number of private and public facilities for the recycling of some source-separated materials, such as aggregates, scrap metal, cardboard and wood, which helps divert thousands of tons of waste from the landfill every year. However, their availability often varies by community. For communities far away from recycling centers, transportation costs can make recycling cost prohibitive.

Lack of markets

For many of the materials making up C&D waste, there are few or no markets in Colorado for processing and recycling the material. One example is asphalt shingles. There were a number of pilot programs launched around the state by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to create markets for converting asphalt shingles into material for road construction. However, in 2015, CDPHE adopted a policy that asphalt shingles are no longer considered a recyclable material in Colorado.  This was due to recycling facilities accepting thousands of tons of roofing shingles and then abandoning them due to lack of demand.    

Separation on site

As mentioned, mixed C&D loads are challenging to recycle. However, placing all C&D waste on site in a single container is generally the most common method of waste disposal at construction sites due to a few reasons. First, space is often limited at a construction site and only one container may fit on site.  Second, it is generally much more expensive to have multiple containers for the collection of sorted materials on site. Finally, with multiple contractors on site during a construction project, ensuring materials are properly sorted can be a difficult job.

While these challenges exist, for-profit companies, non-profits and governmental entities have all sought to develop waste diversion solutions that encourage and, in some cases, require diversion from the landfill.

One example is the U.S. Green Building Council launching the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program in 2000. LEED provides a framework to encourage the implementation of numerous sustainability measures during construction and demolition projects. LEED is widely recognized and has created a market for “green” buildings thereby incentivizing builders to strive for LEED certification. One area to obtain points toward certification is waste reduction and recycling, allowing builders seeking certification to have an incentive to recycle C&D waste despite cost and sorting challenges.

Local governments have also been active in trying to increase diversion. While some local governments have sought to increase C&D diversion through general educational resources for contractors, others have enacted policy-based approaches to require diversion. The City of Boulder and Boulder County require a specified level of diversion from residential construction projects as part of their green building ordinances. Fort Collins also has an ordinance, but for both residential and commercial projects. These ordinances have helped drive some diversion and increased awareness of diversion opportunities. However, enforcing these ordinances has proved challenging, which can decrease their effectiveness.

Finally, a unique aspect of C&D waste compared to other types of waste is that much of it can be reused.  Whether it is dimensional lumber, old kitchen cabinets, decorative tile or counter tops, there are organizations that have created programs and business opportunities for the reuse of C&D waste. By deconstructing buildings rather than demolishing them, material can be salvage for re-sale. The Center for Resource Conservation operates the ReSource Yard in Boulder, and it assists residential projects with deconstruction plans, hauling of salvageable material and sale of salvageable material to the community. In Loveland, Uncle Benny’s Building Supplies has been salvaging and selling used and new building materials for 17 years.

Colorado’s economy is booming but unfortunately, so is C&D waste.  There is no denying that Colorado has significant hurdles to overcome to increase the C&D waste diversion, but it is encouraging to see both the public and private sectors developing resources and options to create more diversion opportunities.

Kevin Afflerbaugh of Western Disposal writes an occasional column about green business practices.


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