Not even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows exactly how much construction and demolition (C&D) waste material the United States generates each year. Not federally regulated, C&D debris classified as nonhazardous is managed at the state level. However, extrapolating from case studies and using available collected data, the EPA has estimated the United States produced approximately 325 million tons of total C&D waste in 2003 — the last year for which it undertook a survey of C&D debris.

Of the 325 million tons of C&D debris in 2003, 170 million tons consisted of building-related construction and demolition (C&D) materials. This amount marks a 23% increase from the estimate of 136 million tons of building-related C&D debris generated by the United States in 1996. From 1996 to 2003, there was a 32% increase in overall building construction, though construction spending increases can also reflect inflation, profit, and other factors that do not necessarily correlate to increased materials use.

Although the definition of C&D debris varies from state to state, it generally refers to the inert materials produced in the process of construction, renovation, and/or demolition of structures, where structures include buildings (residential, commercial, institutional, etc.), roads, and bridges (see SIDEBAR 1: C&D Defined).

Many states exclude materials that might meet the legal standards of hazardous waste from their definition of C&D debris, using terms such as “hazardous,” “unacceptable,” “potentially toxic,” or “illegal.” These materials must be treated or disposed of in a manner consistent with the federal requirements for hazardous waste, as outlined in the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). (For a state-by-state look at definitions and regulations, visit The Construction Industry Compliance Assistance Center at http://www.cicacenter.org/solidregs.html.)

The three largest waste components on most job sites comprise cardboard, wood, and drywall. These materials typically make up 75% of job-site waste. The majority of C&D debris ends up in one of two types of landfills: municipal solid waste landfills, which handle household waste, and C&D landfills, which are devoted exclusively to C&D materials. The C&D landfills must comply with the few basic standards outlined in the Federal Register at 40 CFR Part 257, but state regulations governing them vary widely. In addition, unaccounted for amounts of C&D materials end up in combustion facilities or unpermitted landfills.

Still, most C&D materials can be recovered through recycling and reuse. Of the amount of C&D debris generated in 2003, the EPA estimates, based on state reported disposal and recovery data, approximately 48% was recovered. This recovery estimate marks a 23% increase from the amount estimated to have been recovered in 1996. However, this figure may be an overestimation due to the inclusion of materials that are from non-building sources.

Nevertheless, the recent rise in prices for commodities, such as copper, has led to an increase in the recovery of scrap metal on job sites. The EPA is hoping the interest in green building will also have a positive impact on the rates of recovery of other C&D materials. The agency vows to continue to work in partnership with state environmental agencies and construction organizations to actively promote recovery and recycling of C&D materials (see SIDEBAR 2: Construction Industry Efforts).

Reduce, reuse, recycle

There are numerous benefits of recovering construction and demolition materials, according to the EPA. It reduces the environmental effects of extraction, transportation, and processing of raw materials; reduces project costs through avoided disposal costs, avoided purchases of new materials, revenue earned from materials sales, and tax breaks gained for donations; helps communities, contractors, and/or building owners comply with state and local policies, such as disposal bans and recycling goals; enhances the public image of companies and organizations that reduce disposal; and conserves space in existing landfills.

To attain these benefits, electrical firms can take a multi-stage strategy. Design planning is the first defense against construction waste. Using standard sizes and high-quality engineered products and ordering accurately are both proven ways of saving on materials. In addition, prefabrication practices can cut down considerably on the amount of waste at the job site.

Despite advanced planning, every project will generate a certain amount of C&D debris. Therefore, recycling is a necessary component for keeping waste material out of the landfill. Packaging, new material scraps, and old materials/debris all constitute potentially recoverable materials. There are two ways to recycle at a job site: commingling and source separation. Commingling, or mixing recycled items together, allows workers to quickly throw debris into one bin, saving time and cutting down on the number of recycling containers on the job site. However, construction companies have to pay a C&D processing center to separate the waste.

Source separation allows builders to recycle at higher rates and at lower prices. Builders sell the recyclables directly to market, eliminating the step of hiring a processor to sort the material for them. Hand-separated debris is generally worth more than commingled trash because it contains fewer contaminants. On-site separation requires more up-front training for workers at the site. It is also more labor intensive. In addition, the labeled roll-off bins used for the separating can take up space, especially on small work sites. Furthermore, each bin will have to be transported to a specific recycling center, creating more administrative work for project managers. Finally, if a project will be seeking green certification, the electrical contractor may be responsible for tracking the amount of material removed and recycled to provide the information to the general contractor. However, once these processes are established, recycling can be done at little or no additional cost, especially because it eliminates the processing fee — and contractors can benefit from tax credits for recycling.

In renovation, appliances, masonry materials, and doors and windows may be reusable. Many construction waste materials that are still usable can be donated to non-profit organizations classified as 501(c)3 and are tax-deductible.

Green team

Recycling at 100% employee-owned Rosendin Electric, San Jose, Calif., began not on its construction job sites but in-house. Twenty years ago, the firm started its Green Team in order to become certified as the first green contractor with the City of San Jose. The Green Team, a cross-section of around a dozen employees from the company, consists of project managers and members of staff from every department. One of the team’s first initiatives was to put a recycling bin beside every trash can in its office. “The first thing we did was look at anything that said ‘trash,’” says Brad Rogers, yard manager for Rosendin Electric and one of the founding members of the Green Team. “Every office had a trash can, so we put a recycling can beside it. Then we started looking at what more we could do.”

It wasn’t long until the company started recycling waste materials from its job sites. The effort started with scrap cable, including copper, aluminum, and steel. “Years ago, they called scrap cable on job sites ‘rabbit’ because it ran away from jobs so quickly,” says Rogers. “The Green Team put out to all Rosendin Electric’s employees that scrap cable was not rabbit: it was part of the cost of the job.”

At all its project sites, the company began placing special locked bins one of its security experts designed and its processing vendor fabricated. “We’ve never had one broken into,” says Rogers.

The projected money generated from selling the scrap is included in the estimate of the project from which it’s expected. The Green Team made sure the project managers were aware of this status. “They started making a good effort to recycle because the customers were going to benefit,” Rogers explains. “Everybody got onboard pretty quickly.”

Not long after, the company was able to eliminate the trash dumpsters at its job sites, replacing them with a construction debris box. “That means it’s not trash,” says Rogers. “It’s all recyclable materials — even the wood and cardboard.”

Rosendin Electric commingles, so its debris box is taken to a transfer station where it’s separated. It also recycles fluorescent lamps and ballasts. Cardboard from packaging, particularly from solar panels, which come individually wrapped, merits its own bin. “It can be a lot of cardboard,” says Ernie Beltramo, facilities manager for Rosendin Electric.

Although an incentive for recycling comes from the money it saves the customers, Rosendin Electric’s staff also desires the environmental benefits. “We have a growing number of employees who are heavily involved in all things green and understand and appreciate the importance of doing our part to help the environment,” says Rogers.

Rosendin Electric’s recycling plan is addressed at each project’s kickoff meeting, which members of the Green Team attend. “Now, when we go to a startup meeting, we ask about the steel, aluminum, and copper,” says Rogers. “Are we removing fixtures from this job? If so, we’ll scrap them for the steel value. Cardboard? Half the stuff used to go to landfills, and now we literally recycle every bit of it.”

Additionally, in some of the areas the company works, the general contractors are under guidelines with owners or cities to provide proof that all fixtures and materials being torn out of renovations are recycled. “They want proof you didn’t take it all to the dump,” says Beltramo. “We’re actually on a remodel job in San Francisco now, and we have to show documentation to the general contractor for everything we take off the job.”

Headquartered in San Jose, Calif., Rosendin Electric has branch offices in San Francisco; Sacramento, Calif.; Los Angeles; Tempe, Ariz.; Hillsboro, Ore.; Las Vegas; and most recently, Arlington, Va. The Green Team has started recycling initiatives with all the branch offices too. “Our other branches across the country have been implementing the same thing we’re doing in the Bay Area,” says Beltramo. “Everybody’s coming on-board to give the benefit to our customers and to help the environment.”

Personal mission

San Diego estimates that each year 20% to 35% of the waste that goes to landfills is made up of C&D debris. This amounts to more than 100,000 tons annually for the unincorporated areas of the county and more than one million tons countywide. To lessen this amount, effective April 21, 2007, debris from C&D projects must be diverted away from landfill disposal in the unincorporated County of San Diego. The ordinance requires that 90% of inerts and 70% of all other materials must be recycled. In order to comply with the ordinance, applicants must submit a Construction and Demolition Debris Management Plan and a fully refundable Performance Guarantee prior to building permit issuance.

This ordinance applies only to construction, demolition, or renovation projects 40,000 square feet or greater in the unincorporated county of San Diego. Yet, Braulio Sanabrio, owner of San Diego-based Energy Care Electric, insists on recycling materials from all of his projects, which currently largely fall outside the jurisdiction of the ordinance. “It’s very important for me to do what I can,” says Sanabrio. “Since the beginning, I’ve been recycling and taking part in that. Everything that can be recycled, which now is just about everything — I throw very little away in the trash can — it gets recycled job after job.”

Sanabrio is a 12-year veteran of the electrical industry. He’s owned Energy Care Electric for the last four years, hiring additional workers when necessary, and also working solo when circumstances (mainly the construction economy) dictate. When he worked for others, Sanabrio initiated recycling programs. “I’ve always had that drive to influence my bosses to do it as well,” he says.

As the owner of his own firm, he maintains his record of avoiding landfills. “Right now, I have no employees, so I do all of these things myself,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that I don’t create recyclables. Every small business can make a big difference.”

The bulk of his current projects is designing and installing lighting upgrades. “Each bulb has a tremendous amount of cardboard, which is extremely wasteful,” he says.

The popularity of green building hasn’t yet translated to the packaging, according to Sanabrio. High-performance lamps may have more packaging than regular lamps. “It’s amazing how much packaging goes into one light bulb, especially the fancy ones,” he continues. “But fixing that is a whole different job.”

Sanabrio’s commitment to recycling remains steadfast, even when it means paying processing fees himself. “The industry is not really geared toward recycling,” he says. “A lot of the fees for dumping — and the cost of moving the material  — are very expensive.”

Sanabrio doesn’t adjust his bids to account for the fee. “It’s something I do on the backend,” he explains. “It’s something I hope people can see, but it’s not something I put in my bid. It doesn’t change how I charge my customers. My focus is to rid the customer of all the headache of the waste.”

On smaller jobs, there’s not much profit from recycling. “The metals are easy recyclables,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I recycle copper as well. I’ve got a huge pile of copper, but it’s not what I go into a job expecting to get. What I do know I’m going to have is plenty of cardboard, and the idea for me to profit off the cardboard — there’s no such thing.”

On one job, Sanabrio held onto the cardboard for an entire month in order to recycle it all at once. “For only one guy, I get a lot of cardboard,” he says. “But I made a buck fifty off it. It made no financial sense, but I felt I did the right thing. It’s something I feel passionate about.”

Without financial gain from it, Sanabrio had to change the way he recycled. “It doesn’t make any sense to hold onto it all,” he says, meaning that he now recycles as he goes.

Sanabrio contracts with EDCO, a family-owned waste collection and recycling company that operates out of San Diego. It’s been serving numerous communities in Southern California since 1967. The EDCO family of companies specializes in offering integrated, user-friendly waste removal and recycling programs to residential homes, multi-family properties, commercial businesses, multi-tenant buildings, industrial centers, construction sites, and community events. “They have a commingling plant and will pull out some material out of the trash can,” says Sanabrio. “I support local companies that do that sort of conserving and recycling. If I get a construction dumpster, it will be with EDCO. Of course, I can’t control everything, so at least I can take some comfort in knowing that EDCO will catch some of the recyclables in the dumpsters.”

Sanabrio credits these expenses with keeping other firms from recycling. “It doesn’t make dollars and sense for a lot of business owners,” he says. “I feel that people would like to do it, but there’s just nothing really there for them to make it part of their routine. You have to pay people to do anything, so that’s time and money that a lot of contractors, especially now, just aren’t willing to give.”