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News > Climate Action and Leadership > Commingled Construction Waste Part 2

Commingled Construction Waste Part 2

"You really need to build a broad coalition because it impacts so many parts of the economy and you can do so much good with it.”
Chester Residents demonstrating to shut down the Chester incinerator
Chester Residents demonstrating to shut down the Chester incinerator

Transcript summarized by Kaetlin McGee

Policy, education, and advocacy can significantly shift tides towards sustainable demolition practices. For architects and designers seeking direction on how to make large-scale change, start with cardboard. 

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This article is sponsored by the efforts of AIA Philadelphia's Committee on the Environment's Zero Waste Subcommittee. Some portions of the original meeting transcript have been edited and organized for length and clarity. Please see the end of the article for Panelist and Moderator profiles. This is the second piece in a two-part series on commingled construction waste. Click here for Part 1

Mary Ann: 

[Joining the discussion is] environmental advocate and attorney Mike Ewall, who is fighting to shut down [the Covanta Incinerator] and is the deepest national resource on this topic in this country. He's really excited to support us in this work. 

Is there a way to [spread awareness on a] smaller scale? Maybe Mike wants to jump in here because he actually told me the other day, he takes his clean [personal] cardboard to Newman's (the papermill used by USRI) once a month or once a week. 

Mike: 

I can jump. So, yeah, I first dropped recycled paper off at Newman & Company when I was living out in Bensalem, PA, when I was a high school student. I called them up because I was making a list of all the drop off sites for recyclables. I wanted to know: can I take my high-grade office paper there? and they're like, “what company are you with?” Like, “I'm not with the company”, but they kept thinking I was with a company because I'm using industry terms that people don't usually know.  

So anyway, that was fun. That was in the 90s when I first dropped stuff off there. But occasionally now I'll save up all my paper and cardboard because I don't trust the city to even recycle. I've been documenting on my block about 80-90% of the time in the past, at least three years, they've been putting the recycling in the same truck as the trash. If any of you notice that going on in your neighborhood, please let me know and let's work together to document that. The city thinks that I'm the crazy anomaly and that they don't need to track what they're doing when they violate state law. 

Mary Ann: 

You have some kind of form or something, right? Is it on your website where people can put their address? Or do they just need to email you?  

Mike:

Let me go find that… I was sharing it again recently… Here's the form

Mary Ann:  

I think we all saw that during the beginning of the pandemic when we were all home. We could all see that happen.

Mike: 

So let me give a really quick elevator pitch refresher on why this is all important. For those who haven't heard me say it before, we actually live surrounded by the biggest cluster of trash incinerators in the country. They're five of them surrounding Philadelphia, so whatever way the wind blows, we're breathing someone's trash - often our own. One of them is the biggest one in the country with the fewest pollution controls, and that's the one in Chester, PA. There's also another one in Camden, New Jersey, that's the closest proximity to Philadelphia. Those five incinerators are all among the top seven worst industrial air polluters in the seven-county Philadelphia Area. It's not like they're just somewhere in the mix of polluters, they're right at the top, including the very top polluter. This is directly related to the fact that Philadelphia is one of the worst counties in terms of asthma and in terms of cancer in the whole country. 

I was just looking at the numbers on construction and demolition waste and a little over 69,000 tons were reportedly generated in Philadelphia in 2023. That's probably an underestimate. It's usually a pretty big portion of the waste stream and a bigger fraction of the waste stream than those numbers show. Probably because some could be going to New Jersey, and it just doesn't get counted. Or it's not going directly to a landfill or incinerator, so it doesn't get counted - like it will get processed first, then it's off the demolition charts where it ends up being counted as municipal waste for various reasons. So, it's probably way more than 69,000 tons, but at least that amount shows up in data.  

Now the solution to this, I think, is going to need to be a lot more than well-meaning architecture firms or contractors doing some voluntary recycling. That would be awesome, but I think we need to institutionalize this. We need to make sure that Philadelphia is one of the cities that has a deconstruction mandate, and a mandate for a certain amount of recovery materials to be used in new construction and renovation. There are a lot of other cities around the country that either have this as a policy or are working on it, like Baltimore. I have been doing some work with folks in Baltimore on that for the past few years. Here are a bunch of links 1 that will give you some good resources on where to find models around the country. I think it would be amazing if this kind of effort goes to what is now a more progressive City Council than we usually have; go to them and say “let's get a bill like they're working on in Baltimore, like they have in Portland and other places, and let's get it on the books in Philadelphia”. To have it coming from architects and contractors and those who are actually working directly in this would be much better and much more influential than if I were to go to City Council and say, “I'm an environmentalist and I want them to have to do this!” You really need to build a broad coalition because it impacts so many parts of the economy and you can do so much good with it. Even in Baltimore's case. It brings recidivism for the people who end up getting employed coming straight out of prison into some of the nonprofits that were doing deconstruction there. It brings recidivism down to basically zero, in some places literally zero. They employ people coming out of prison and going into the workforce by doing deconstruction. That's just one of many sectors touched by this. It not only helps reduce the pollution, and reduce the impact of incinerator and landfill communities, but it's going to help a lot economically within the city itself. 

Reference Links:

Build Reuse  Portland, OR resources  San Antonio, TX report 

Campaign for a deconstruction mandate in Baltimore, MD 

Construction and demolition waste incineration hazards 

Mary Ann: 

Are you saying Baltimore has this low recidivism rate, right now? 

Mike: 

I don't know what the recidivism rate is in general, so that's why I made sure I really worded that appropriately. [In this case] for the people who ended up in these nonprofits that were doing deconstruction, I say this in past tense because I think they folded. It was really sad. It was about a year or two ago that they actually demolished the building of the group that was advocating for deconstruction. They didn't deconstruct the building, they demolished it, which is just [*heavy sigh*]. 

If we can get that bill passed that we've been pushing on for a while now, then it would create such a mandate that you would have a lot of for-profit and nonprofit companies building that space back up. But the people that they did have [in Baltimore] and in other cities, it dropped recidivism down to zero or close to it. 

Kaetlin: 

Yeah, I think the fact that we immediately started talking about cost just goes to show that that's really where the incentive is. If the government and policies and law-making changes in that direction, the incentive for owners is that they would be fined for not [deconstructing or recycling]. I think that would be a possible solution. 

Mike: 

If you check out rebuildmore.org, I think you'll find a copy of the bill they're working on there and it needs some polishing last I saw it. But a lot of good concepts are in there and there were like 20-some different parts of that bill. You'll see they're really trying to incentivize things from all directions and really make it work, pulling on some of the best models from other parts of the country. 

Danielle:  

Are there any LEED or other certification credits that would also incentivize this kind of effort? Not that I'm opposed to the policy because that's the best solution, and that's the ultimate goal. But sometimes, legislators are more open to tune up adjustments and other sorts of incremental changes that could have lasting impact while we work on the overarching policy. If it worked well with the city, with embodied carbon [goals], and a little bit with requiring reuse to a certain extent. I'm just curious if there's anything out there right now that would allow for LEED credits or similar with recycling.

Mike: 

I'll say one quick thing on LEED because I'm sure a lot of you know it way, way better than I do. But there's one aspect of it that I'll put caution on. I'm sure LEED does a lot that would relate to this and help incentivize it, but unless they close this loophole - and I haven't heard that they have - they count the weight of material. So concrete ends up getting a lot of points. If you have cement or concrete where they mixed fly ash from coal power plants into it, that's now recycled content concrete. They can get a lot of recycling points for using essentially what should be regulated as hazardous waste in building materials - exposing workers, especially when they demolish it. Eventually all the unregulated mercury and other metals will come out. It's very dangerous and that is what eats up a lot of recycling points.  So, I would caution if that's still a problem with LEED. If you're using LEED, try to make sure you don't eat up all the recycling points by doing the wrong thing. But someone who has more context on that would be great to have that

[Current LEED v4.1 credit. There are two options to achieve points, diversion and waste prevention. The latter includes more intensive metrics and is therefore worth double points. This is where the weight consideration comes in. LEED has tried to mitigate the concern Mike raises by capping the generation of waste materials at 10lbs/ft². That being said, based on project experience from this group, the diversion option is the more common strategy. For this, you simply carry out the Waste Management Plan and divert at least 50% of the total construction and demolition materials from landfill and incineration facilities. Partnering with a recycling facility can easily hit this metric, as the reported recovery rates from these facilities are over 50%. A report must be provided as supporting documentation to USGC for LEED certification.]

Danielle: 

That's a great point I didn't realize that, thank you for sharing. 

Mary Ann: 

Yeah, I'd just like to say that I feel like this is overarching. Just like when we did the Zero Waste Event Guide, we kind of knew how hard it would be to make our ultimate goal of zero plastic waste possible. But it was a vision quest. I'm super excited about this against the odds of it not actually working, for the odds that it can be transformational in the long run. That if we work on this, it will have a positive impact.  

From what I understand regarding the certifications is that everybody wants their LEED credits. They take all of this debris, and they bring it to BURNS or Revolution Recovery (other recycling facilities in the Greater Philadelphia Area). Then it has to have a certain weight and or they won't take it. We've had a lot of discussions with Fern (Revolution Recovery personnel) and there are so many wonderful materials that are not so wonderful [after demolition] and they can't sell them. So at the end of the day, they have to trash them. I think that these materials could technically go to Revolution Recovery, but a small-scale project doesn't have enough weight and doesn't have enough cardboard, and it's not the end place. Taking this directly to the paper mill, we know that there are a lot of challenges here, but we know that if we overcome the challenge [the result] is that “yes, this is going to be reused. This is direct.” There is no middle road where it's commingled where it has to be sorted and possibly it's dirty and you can't use it or sell it.  

I think that in spite of the fact that this will be difficult to make work, I am so excited that Stan and Peter are excited about doing a test and seeing if we can get people on board with this. I can say that on the small projects I do, we have so much cardboard, and this cardboard is in very small places. We fold the boxes, we separate them, and we put them in a location because they take up so much damn space. I mean, I haven't tested this myself yet, but I'd like to [try] on a project that's very small scale. What about you, Dan? How about your experience over at Penn? 

Dan: 

It was pretty much as you described. The LEED projects that LEED certification drove performance. I think we had an agreement, close to an exclusive agreement, with Revolution Recovery for dumpsters at several places across campus and one permanent dumpster in the service yard area where our facilities department would take [it]. We were pretty aggressive; I mean the Facilities Department would take pallets that we used to accept bulk materials there. Cardboard was bailed at a number of locations - that went to a cardboard recycler immediately, it didn't go through Revolution Recovery. With retail establishments you have so much cardboard being generated. The commingled stuff from classroom buildings, inside buildings and out outside of buildings, was collected by our internal facilities team. This is separate from construction waste and was driven by university trucks right to the waste management transfer station on Grays Ferry [Ave.] because that was less than a mile away.  

So absolutely cost driven and path of least resistance in every case. Although, the Facilities Department did do a good job of trying to capture things like pallets, things like cardboard delivery boxes. When you have a university, you have the capacity to track. We could actually measure our recycling rate pretty accurately and our contamination rates as well. 

Kaetlin: 

Yeah, also because our firm does a lot of university and college work, higher education and especially with a school like Penn – they have a lot of environmental goals themselves as an institution. So that definitely helps out. But I see MaryAnn's concerns of when it's a small project or if the resources are limited. Facilities people will do the bare minimum if you let them sometimes. I always see facilities as the last but most important link in the chain, because if that's not a strong link in the chain, that's the first thing that's going to break. It doesn't matter if you have great goals or a great spec. If Facilities and Operations aren't on board, or who's running the building or who's unboxing the furniture isn't on board, then it's wasted effort. 

Mike: 

I have some questions for Peter if that's ok. Are you familiar with the term “raggartail”? 

Peter: 

No, I'm not. 

Mike: 

The reason I asked is because I was helping a group in upstate New York, where a cement kiln wanted to burn this stuff called raggartail, which I was told – and I confirmed this online at other paper mills – is their waste products when all the tape on their cardboard boxes and the staples and all that stuff is pulled out. That's raggertail. I'm wondering what happens to that stuff. I pulled the tape off my boxes, but I'm sure most people aren't doing that. Where's that go? 

Peter: 

I work for United States Recycling, so I don't know all the specifics of the mill operation and manufacturing process. What I do know, is that Newman is committed to environmental responsibility. The mill sources recycled paper from post-consumer curbside collection, post-commercial, and post-industrial generation. Our in-house recycling facility collects, sorts, and processes recovered fiber material. Inherently, there will always be some level of contamination at the generation and collection level. Collected fiber is broken down through the pulping process. Once fiber is separated and free of contaminants, recycled paperboard is formed. The mill waste is extracted and separated during the manufacturing process to later be disposed of. 

Stan:  

Mike, you brought up a good point though, that Peter tied into as well. I would never think about this until you said it - the tape and packing components that are on the boxes from the construction site. Whether Peter supplied a dumpster, or it was delivered to his yard, from a construction standpoint, the workers aren't going to remove that stuff. The boxes will be broken down, collapsed, put in containers or trucks, and brought there. From that perspective, I know you said you kind of cleaned it off, but from an efficiency standpoint, [a crew is] going to just collapse them and bring them to Peter to handle from there. 

Mary Ann: 

Any questions from everybody else?  

Kaetlin:  

I have a question that will hopefully circle back to our original discussion about commingled. It kind of reminds me of television stations. We had the whole cable package and then we went to single stream Netflix. You got everything all in one place. Then we realized that sucked and went back to multiple streaming services and having different channels like we used to. What is your hope for the future of demolition and recycling? And do you see a world where we go back to separate waste streams? 

Stan: 

From a practical standpoint, the more we have to separate on site, the more challenges are posed and quite frankly the less it's going to happen.  

Kaetlin: 

There's the reason we went to commingled in the first place, so yeah. 

Stan: 

Right. And I hate to go to cost, but that's what every project and owner is about: “How do we do this project? This is our vision, and this is what we want. We have X amount of dollars; how do we achieve this?”  

Mary Ann: 

Except… it's not real. Single-stream recycling appears to improve recycling rates when it mostly creates mountains of contaminated materials that go directly to the landfill or the incinerator. 

Stan: 

Very true, right. It's finding the happy medium in there. We start with the cardboard, and we talked about LEED where there is separation. Cardboard is sort of a unique item because cleanliness is important, right? It can't be contaminated. It can't be mixed with the lunches that are thrown on top of the construction debris. Is there an opportunity where certain other things could be separated? Yes. But it really needs to be shown why that would be important and what the benefit would be. That's something that every owner/client/contractor is going to look at.  

It doesn't need to be a monetary benefit. It could be an environmental benefit, like Penn or another owner saying “hey, we're we really want to focus on the environment. This is one of our missions for the upcoming years, so we want to show how we're doing that”. But again, that goes right back to the education factor. 

Mary Ann: 

Do you think we need to be thinking about other materials at the same time as? Should we only be talking about cardboard, or should we be talking about other [materials]? 

Stan: 

I mean, cardboard is easier because it's light. You can throw it in the back of a pickup truck pretty easily. Almost anyone can pick it up and move it. From a simplicity perspective - and Mary Ann you highlighted this - no matter what size project you're doing, there's going to be deliveries and things that come wrapped in cardboard boxes and packed, whatever it might be. So that's why I kind of like your initial cardboard approach before you explore other things. 

 

Panelist Profiles: 

● Stan Weglarz, Director of Project Management at Wolfe Scott Associates 

● Peter Clark, Account Executive at United States Recycling Inc. 

● Mike Ewall, Environmental advocate & Attorney 

● Dan Garofalo, Director of Sustainable Operations at Edelman Fossil Park & Museum 

 

Moderator Profiles: 

● Mary Ann Duffy, AIA COTE Zero Waste Subcommittee co-chair & Architect 

● Danielle Fleischmann, AIA COTE co-chair & Architect 

● Kaetlin McGee, AIA COTE Zero Waste Subcommittee co-chair, climate news writer, Sustainability Coordinator & Mechanical 

Engineer 

 

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