Five years ago on this day in Edmonton, I was witness to what should have been the start of something big in waste reduction.
It was a press conference at a rocky pit that is now the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy. Then-deputy environment minister Diana McQueen was there to say that the province would create a strategy to slash construction and demolition (C&D) waste, one that could include a deposit system for construction materials.
I was pumped! The province was getting serious about tackling the source of about a third of the junk in our landfills, and I couldn’t wait to see the results.
I’m still waiting. Plans were made, meetings were held, but the strategy – set to roll out in 2010 – never rolled out.
“The political timing sucked,” says Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta, on account of the recession. “It basically got shelved, which is very unfortunate.”
It did, however, prompt new talks about C&D waste in Alberta – talks that have led many to take action to reduce it.
What’s the waste?
If you want a look at the size of Alberta’s C&D waste problem, head down to Edmonton’s Construction and Demolition Waste Recycling Facility.
It’s a place of dust, noise and debris. Trucks trundle in and dump piles of junk onto the ground for masked men to hand sort into smaller piles. A crane claws at the piles and drops them onto a conveyor belt, one that rolls into a three-storey tall sorting facility from which comes the constant metallic shriek of sorting screens.
There are stacks of desks, piles of twisted metal and house-sized mounds of wood and drywall. There’s even a row of discarded concrete garbage cans next to a mountain range of concrete chunks.
About 110,000 tonnes of C&D waste passed through this centre last year, says Shailesh Modak, who’s been its supervisor since it opened in 2012. That’s about the same mass as 1.25 aircraft carriers.
“This place can handle almost 40 tonnes per hour of material,” he says, and gets about 300 tonnes a day.
Using screens, magnets and a whole lot of human power, the centre can intercept and recycle about 55 per cent of all the C&D waste it gets, Modak says. That should rise to 75 per cent next year once its new waste-to-energy plant starts up.
C&D waste is different from residential trash, Modak says. It’s a lot bigger, so it can’t run it through the regular sorter without jamming it, and it has concrete and rubble instead of kitchen and yard waste.
But it’s still very recyclable.
“Sixty to 70 per cent of the stuff is compostable,” Modak notes – wood, drywall and shingles – and will be sent to the local composting facility.
They grind concrete into gravel for roads, ship the metal and plastic off for recycling, and stockpile the energy-rich fine materials for biofuels. That leaves about 30,000 tonnes of stuff a year (such as fibreglass insulation) that they haven’t figured out how to divert yet.
There are few statistics available, Seidel says, but C&D waste is thought to make up about 30 per cent of the junk that gets into Alberta landfills.
And it’s piling up. Some 650,000 tonnes of C&D waste (about seven aircraft carriers) got dumped in Alberta in 2010, reports Statistics Canada, or well above the 510,000 there was in 2000.
“It’s all financial,” Seidel says.
Alberta’s booming economy encourages speed, which encourages companies to skimp on time-consuming practices like recycling or waste reduction.
“Unless there’s a fairly significant financial incentive to change the way of doing things, why would you?” she says.
Still, Seidel says, there are a few companies and governments out there taking action on C&D waste.
One of them is Edmonton’s B&B Demolition. General manager Penny McEwan supervises a crew as it guts the burnt-out back room of the Liquor Depot near Northgate Mall.
Crews use power tools and their bare hands to carefully strip the drywall and steel studs off the wall (occasionally helped by a small backhoe), sorting the waste by material into different bins. With careful sorting and recycling, McEwan says, they can cut their waste for a job like this down from five bins to one.
A lot of the waste gets reused as well. B&B works with a group called Home Re-use-ables that salvages all the doors, sinks, lights, millwork, cabinets, fireplaces and other items at a site for resale before crews knock down everything else.
Fifteen years ago, says B&B owner Bill Knight, demolition groups would start at one end of a building and chew their way to the other.
“We demolished a space, we packed it into a bin, and we drove away.”
Now, Knight says, instead of demolishing a space, they “dismantle” it.
“You’re constantly sorting now,” he says, and looking to recycle whenever possible.
It’s part of a broad shift in industry thought, says McEwan.
“The industry has realized that our landfills are filling up fast, and we need to do something in order to lengthen (their use).”
B&B typically diverts 76 per cent of its waste per project from landfill with this process, Knight says. The City of Lethbridge reports that it’s reached 90 per cent diversion during demolitions using similar techniques.
Some cities are cracking down on C&D waste by charging more for it. You pay $70 a tonne for regular C&D waste in Calgary, for example, but if you have concrete, wood or other easy-to-recycle materials in your load, the rate jumps to $145 a tonne.
“They are diverting wood in Calgary like crazy” as a result, Seidel says.
Then there’s the deposit system. The Alberta government struck a working group in 2008 that proposed a provincially-regulated deposit-refund program for C&D waste. Under the program, contractors would put down a deposit (about $0.95 per square foot) when they apply for a construction permit that they could get back if they meet certain waste diversion targets.
San Diego, Calif., has had such a system in place since 2008, says Ken Prue, that city’s recycling program manager.
“That deposit creates the economic incentive to recycle the construction and demolition debris,” he explains, as contractors can get a full refund if they divert at least half of their waste.
San Diego got about 283,000 tonnes of C&D waste last year, Prue says, down from 532,000 tonnes in 1999.
“The tonnages have gone down substantially,” he says, and it’s due in most part to the deposit system.
The Capital Region Waste Minimization Advisory Committee hopes public education will get the job done, says Christian Benson, St. Albert’s solid waste program co-ordinator, who works closely with the group.
“We already have the infrastructure in place,” he notes. “We just need to make people aware that it’s there.”
Reaping the rewards
C&D waste reduction can save companies money, Benson says – it means fewer loads to the dump, lower fees per load (if you’ve sorted them properly), and potentially, cash back from the sale of recyclables.
It also helps the environment. Recycling the waste from a typical home demolition prevents about five tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions, notes the City of Edmonton – equivalent to that produced by 2,000 hamburgers. By recycling 5,000 tonnes of asphalt shingles last year, the city saved about 10,000 barrels of oil.
And there are signs that we’re making headway on C&D waste – Alberta’s C&D waste seems to have peaked in 2006, Stats Canada suggests, and has fallen by about 211,000 tonnes since then.
Waste reduction makes philosophical sense, Benson says.
“Would you rather commit a material to the landfill forever, or turn it into useful product again?”