Large-scale commercial demolition projects and building teardowns often lend themselves to straightforward recycling opportunities for contractors. High-volume materials, like concrete and wood, and high-value materials, like metal, are systematically cherrypicked from sites and subsequently recycled. But what happens when a demolition contractor generates materials that aren’t easily processed through traditional recycling methods? That was the challenge facing the team at South Gate, California-based Interior Removal Specialist (IRS) Demo as its business picked up steam over a decade ago. Looking for a better way to divert interior debris from landfill and meet local recycling ordinances, the IRS team decided to start its own recycling business, Construction & Demolition Recycling Inc. (CDR Inc.), which received its first solid waste facility permit in 2007.
“We didn’t have a choice if we wanted to meet the requirements of cities like Santa Monica and Pasadena that had a 50-percent diversion mandate for these demolition jobs at the time,” says Richard Ludt, the director of environmental affairs for CDR Inc. “The only thing we could do was start a facility that targeted the materials we were hauling.”
CDR Inc.’s seven-acre processing facility is headed up by Ludt and Vicky Herrera, the company’s corporate officer and field operations manager. It is the only construction and demolition (C&D) facility in California that solely recycles tenant improvement demolition debris.
While the facility is permitted to take in 3,000 tons per day (TPD) at full capacity, Ludt says the company is only processing between 250-300 TPD currently. However, he expects that to change soon. CDR Inc. recently obtained hauler permits in many of its surrounding cities that will allow it to better serve the C&D management needs of area contractors. With these permits in place, Ludt says the facility is poised to increase its incoming tonnage.
“We have broken away from being a recycling facility that just serves one customer,” Ludt says. “We have become a fully independent facility with our own dumpster rental, hauling and collection operations.”
Though the composition of its incoming material stream fluctuates, CDR Inc. presently enjoys a 79 percent diversion rate. The facility diversion breakdown averages are as follows: 27 percent drywall, 14 percent metals, 13 percent wood, 10 percent carpet, 9 percent concrete, 4 percent ceiling tiles and 1 percent each of cardboard and salvaged/donated items. Only 21 percent of outgoing material is trash or contaminated material.
To process its recyclables, CDR Inc. relies on a portable sort line from the Québec-based Sherbrooke OEM and a trommel from Crystal Lake, Illinois-based Tuffman Equipment. Ludt says CDR Inc. favors a more low-tech approach via manual sorting to avoid crushing incoming drywall, which accounts for the largest percentage of its incoming material. However, Ludt says CDR Inc. is presently weighing the benefits of adding new equipment to better sort its incoming cardboard, plastics and glass.
Like most C&D recyclers, Ludt says that finding end markets is one of the company’s biggest challenges. To meet its needs, CDR Inc. relies on a network of customers.
“We’re very lucky in California that the soil needs gypsum. We’re shipping 1,200 tons of gypsum every month to farmers to use in [agriculture], so that takes care of 30 percent of our inbound material right there,” Ludt says. “Most of the wood we’re getting is going to waste-to-energy use because almost all of it is manufactured lumber, although we do donate the small percentage of dimensional lumber we do get from public loads to various beneficial reuse projects. We’re also very fortunate in that a lot of the carpet we get is carpet tile. Because we have the ability to keep it clean in our warehouse, we donate tens of thousands of square feet of carpet every year to nonprofits that reuse it in places like homeless shelters, children’s centers and battered women’s shelters. As for our fines, we had been using them for cover for a while, and then we cleaned them up enough that they were going for [agricultural] uses for non-human consumption crops because they’re predominantly gypsum-based coming out of our facility, but now, they’re getting mostly used for road stabilization. Even then, fines make up less than 10 percent of our weight.”
Beyond recycling and reusing material, Ludt says CDR Inc. has established a robust donation program. Because of the company’s focus on commercial interior work, CDR Inc. receives a lot of gently used furniture from companies that are moving offices or undergoing renovations.
“When we get furniture that’s still in good shape, we have a program to repurpose it. We have a 100,000-square-foot warehouse, so we’re putting that furniture in the warehouse and we’re making it available to any nonprofit that wants it,” Ludt says. “We’re currently donating anywhere from 30 to 60 tons of furniture and fixtures every month. Everyone from dog rescue centers to the Church of Scientology to fire departments has access to our goods. As long as it can go to somebody that needs it, it would be criminal to let this really expensive furniture go to the landfill.”
Accepting the challenge
Specializing in interior demolition recycling isn’t an easy vocation. Beyond familiar challenges in finding end markets, the nature of the projects that generate CDR Inc.’s incoming materials often make it difficult for source separation.
“The biggest issue with commercial interior demolition as far as diversion—and I don’t care who is doing the demo work—is the fact that most high-rise buildings in the California market only have room for one dumpster in the loading dock, so you can’t do a lot of source separation,” Ludt says. “That creates a challenge, because we all know the easiest way to keep materials clean is to have a separate box per material. But that doesn’t work in a commercial high-rise. On a larger scale job, it gets a little bit easier. But on a smaller scale job, if you’re only doing 5,000 or 8,000 square feet of demo, then you have no choice but to put all the material in one box, and it’s difficult to keep those materials clean enough to divert.”
While Ludt acknowledges there are less challenging ways to make a buck, he says pushing the envelope of what can be diverted is part of the company’s DNA.
“At the end of the day, we’ve kind of made it tough on ourselves just to prove [diverting this material] can be done,” Ludt says. “If disposal is $35-$40 per ton, processing is $50-$70 a ton and you’re bringing in $90-$100 a ton at the gate depending on what facility you’re at, you can make it make financial sense, but it’s hard when we’re going up against people who own landfills or have more traditional C&D commodities.
“We do have the advantage that we’re in California and there is legislation that mandates a certain level of recycling,” Ludt adds. “Moving forward, the state, Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles all have some pretty aggressive zero-waste plans they’re aiming for, which puts us in a good position. If the state, county and the cities are serious about zero waste, then eventually everybody is going to have to start looking at recycling commercial interior debris the same way we do.”
Ludt says CDR Inc. doesn’t just strive to divert material from landfill to comply with local regulations. The company does it because it’s the right thing to do for both the community and the environment.
“We could make more money doing it an easier way. We could drop the price of concrete inbound to our facility and we could bring in tons and tons of concrete and wood and not have to process so much of that interior debris and increase our profit,” he says. “But one of the things we say around the yard is once you know the damage this stuff can cause, you can’t unknow. Once you know what drywall or manufactured lumber does when it gets into the landfill and all of those chemicals turn into harmful gases or get down to the leachate that is only being kept out of the groundwater by a plastic liner that has, at best, a 50-year warranty—how can you knowingly put this material in a landfill?”
CDR Inc.’s efforts to change the way C&D material is recycled hasn’t gone unnoticed. According to Ludt, the company is currently the only C&D facility in southern California to garner Recycling Certification Institute (RCI) certification, making it the only facility in the region eligible to provide the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED pilot point for facilities with third-party verification. Additionally, the facility has been singled out on the awards circuit as of late. In just the last six months, CDR Inc. has won the Sustainable Materials Management Award from the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), the Recycler of the Year Award from the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA), and the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA) from the state of California, which is the highest environmental honor in the state.
“In the space of six months, we have been recognized by the state, internationally through SWANA and called out specifically within the C&D recycling industry with the CDRA award, so that’s kind of like the holy trinity in this industry—the word’s getting out,” Ludt says. “It’s nice to know that somebody gets it because it does get frustrating to be doing it right and sometimes feeling like we’re the only ones who are, and I know that’s not the case—there are other good people out there. But to get that recognition that somebody understands that what we’re doing has some meaning. That means a lot to us.