The construction industry dumps 164 billion tons of waste a year into America's solid waste stream, 25-40% of the total, according to the latest figures (2003) from the Whole Building Design Guide. Demolition accounts for 53% of construction industry waste, renovation, 38%, and new construction, 9%.
The Associated General Contractors of America has been encouraging its members to adopt “beneficial reuse” (such as reusing concrete from highway projects) and to make C&D recycling part of contractors' environmental management plans. AGC says state or local laws sometimes prohibit recycling of certain materials, and that AGC members say it's difficult to get subcontractors to cooperate on C&D waste recycling. AGC also points to the shortage of recycling facilities in key markets.
Still, 164 billion tons is a lot of unnecessary dumping. Why unnecessary? Because progressive construction firms—among them Consigli, Shawmut, Skanska, Swinerton, and Turner—have proven that anywhere from 50-95% of construction and demolition waste can be diverted from landfill. Size alone does not account for their leadership. Ultimately, it's a matter of commitment. If these firms can do it, why not every contractor?
Building product manufacturers also play a huge role here: They make the products that ultimately wind up in landfills. But, as I learned at a recent conference of the Carpet & Rug Institute's Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), recycling carpet and tile is not so easy.
Five years ago, CARE signed an agreement with the U.S. EPA and several states to divert 40% of used carpet—two billion pounds a year—by 2012. Along the way, CARE members made a lot of mistakes. They thought that a big chunk of waste carpet could be sold to cement kilns as fuel (so-called waste-to-energy), only to find that the kiln operators wanted the recyclers to pay them for the privilege. Others found that, even when they invented new products (such as automobile parts) using carpet waste, the market could evaporate, as it did when the domestic auto industry tanked.
Last year, CARE members diverted 253 million pounds of material from landfill—well short of the projected yearly goal. Yet it is a lot more than other building product sectors—notably gypsum board, PVC, resilient flooring, fabrics and furnishings, ceramics and laminates—are doing to divert their waste from landfill. Only in ceiling tiles do we see some activity, with Armstrong recycling about 10.7 million pounds last year—what CARE does in 2-3 weeks.
We should also be wary of government regulation. California now requires 10% post-consumer content in carpet. As a result, some producers are mixing glass into their carpet backing to reach 10% recycled content. Twenty years from now, that glass-backed carpet will be nearly impossible to recycle.
The biggest lesson from CARE's experience is that C&D waste diversion works when the market works. Government, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and AEC professionals need to work together to make C&D waste recycling viable as a business, or it will surely fail.