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Debris Diversion Program Gains Traction near Chicago

Demolition Work on Division Street in Chicago, Illinois
New regulations in Chicago require 70 percent of the materials, by weight, that are collected from building demolitions to be recycled rather than dumped in a landfill. Residential projects are required to reuse another 5 percent of debris; commercial projects are encouraged to do so. Wikimedia Commons/Adam Jones, Ph.D.

Cook County’s ordinance requiring that 5 percent of debris from construction and demolition projects be reused and 70 percent be recycled may be one of the country’s most progressive—and after five months it has plenty of support.

April 2, 2013—The goal is that someday soon the scene of a demolition contractor using backhoes and bulldozers to crush homes and send their remains to a landfill will be a distant memory.

This practice is not only environmentally detrimental but also treats as trash such desirable materials as sturdy, hundred-year-old specimens of the material referred to as Chicago common brick and wood flooring made from old-growth Wisconsin forests.

But Cook County, Illinois, is taking steps to address these concerns. The Department of Environmental Control for the large county, which includes the city of Chicago as well as most of the nearby suburbs to the north and south along Lake Michigan, enacted an ordinance on demolition debris last summer that went into effect on November 21. The ordinance requires that 70 percent (by weight) of the debris resulting from both construction and demolition projects be recycled and, in the case of residential projects, that at least another 5 percent be directly reused. Commercial projects are encouraged simply to designate as much material as possible for reuse.

Because the City of Chicago operates under home rule, its projects are not required to meet these standards, but the hope is that contractors working both inside and outside of the city’s limits will start to divert a total of 75 percent of their debris as a matter of habit. After about five months, the ordinance seems to have been a success, not only in educating demolition contractors on the best practices for sustainable deconstruction (free workshops were held throughout the winter) but also in setting a standard that many large counties around the country may be encouraged to match.

With much of the debris coming from concrete foundations, contractors around the country don’t have too much trouble meeting the 70 percent recycling goal, but the 5 percent reuse mandate can be a new concept, according to Ted Reiff, the president of ReUse People of America, a California-based organization that encourages deconstruction—the piece-by-piece dismantling of a structure—rather than demolition for residential projects. “To my knowledge, it’s the first in the country,” said Reiff in written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

“The 70 percent recycle requirement, while aggressive, is not unheard of,” Reiff said. “There are several cities in California and elsewhere [that] have set this type of recycle limit. The basic reason is that our landfills are filling up.”

And Cook County is no different. According to an article on the county’s website, its lone remaining landfill has just a few years of viability left at its current rate of use.

Ken Ortiz, the owner of OBI Deconstruction, of Northbrook, Illinois, says he’s encouraged by the early responses to the ordinance and is optimistic that demolition contractors will quickly become aware of the reuse value of the materials they remove from their projects.

“The demolition contractors are used to recycling metal and brick, but they need to get a little more educated about the markets that are out there. Even the very distressed properties have a lot of value,” says Ortiz. “The problem for the demolition contractor is [that] he’s going to have to get out of his machine and his truck and he’s going to have to have someone on the ground doing the harvesting of the materials.”

And that’s exactly the response that the county is looking for, as it is in charge of building permits, trash collection, and environmental oversight for the 130 city governments within its boundaries. Its Department of Environmental Control is taking the lead on the debris diversion initiative. “Each [municipality] evolved differently, so our responsibility became setting policy on what we can do with our waste stream,” says Deborah Stone, the department’s director, who points out that construction debris is one of the largest sources of material going into landfills all over the country.

“We’re trying to take the lead because a lot of municipalities don’t have the staff,” says Bryant Williams, the county’s manager for engineering services. “And the difference between our ordinance and others that are similar is that our requirements kick in at the single-family-home level.”

The county is doing its best to make the process as painless as possible, providing a Web-based auditing system and introducing contractors to markets in which they can sell such reusable items as metal, furniture, flooring, lumber, copper wire, fixtures, and appliances.

“I have not heard anyone say that the requirements are going to put them out of business,” says Williams. “People are going to complain a little bit because it’s something new, but the contractors that have been doing this successfully for a long period of time, they’re already recycling as much as possible and some of them are doing it in very sophisticated ways.”

At this point the county has no plans to revise its guidelines unless it’s established that they’re too lax. “I’d love for us to work ourselves out of a job so that we didn’t have to regulate it,” says Stone, who adds that if “it would just be a market phenomenon—it creates more jobs, small contractors find they can make more money—that would be the highest level of success.”

The ordinance includes provisions for exemptions, specifies tracking forms and transport records, and outlines penalties for avoiding the requirements, but perhaps its most important aspect is that it eliminates the need for contractors to keep track of regulations for each city in which they work.

Matthew Krug, who owns Krug Demolition, a small firm in Cleveland, was quickly able to see the value in such an all-encompassing ordinance. “Every single city in [Ohio’s] Cuyahoga County has different guidelines,” he says. “You’re working from different rule books from every entity you do business with. If we could just get one rule book, I think that would go a long way.”

While it takes about twice as long and a few more workers to deconstruct a home than to demolish it, the expense can be recouped by taking advantage of sustainability tax breaks or by donating the reusable material to such organizations as Rebuilding Exchange, a nonprofit group that has received 8,000 tons of diverted material since 2009.

“We see a lot of deconstruction activity on the North Shore, where big mansions are being taken down to build bigger mansions,” says the organization’s founder, Elise Zelechowski. That’s where some of the reusable material most in demand comes from, but both Ortiz and Williams agree that newer residences and even those damaged by neglect or fire can have a hefty haul of valuable material.

While small firms should be agile enough to adapt to the new regulations, what about large builders? Myrrh Caplan, the national program manager for green construction for the large international contractor Skanska, says that although most of that company’s projects are commercial, “we’re well exceeding the seventy percent recycle requirement where the local infrastructure can support it.”

“Certainly for any metropolitan area, folks should be well in excess of seventy percent diversion right now,” Caplan says. “Company-wide, for 2013 we’re trying to ensure less than fifteen percent of waste goes to a landfill.”

Ultimately, regulations such as Cook County’s can help palliate any untoward effects on the environment from construction projects. But there’s also a great perk emerging from this type of work. “I’m pulling out this cheese board I bought from Rebuilding Exchange today,” says Stone. “It’s walnut, and it’s gorgeous.”



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