Are C&D End Products Considered Recycled?

By William Turley, associate publisher & Editor

Are the end products made from C&D facilities recycled products? You may think so, but many in the professional recycling classes consider several of those materials not to be recycled, and some no better than landfilling.

Let me explain. I belong to an online listserve called Jobs Through Recycling Net, or JTR, which allows participants to post questions and get answers from recycling professionals from across the country. Originally begun by the EPA years ago, it is now a stand-alone service with almost all of the participants from government, but there are also consultants, journalists and association personnel. During one post someone offhandedly said incineration was no better than landfilling and should not be considered recycling. That’s when I jumped in to say:

The use of C&D wood as a biomass product has long proved to be a safe and economically feasible alternative to landfilling the wood. For much of the wood from retiring buildings, there is little opportunity for salvage (although it is done as often as economically feasible, but demolition and recycling is virtually always more cost effective) or higher end products such as particle board (not enough of the right kind of wood to meet the manufacturer’s specification.) Mulch is an option, but there are a lot of other infeeds that compete here. So a lot of the wood has only two alternatives: landfill or biomass. Which one do you like better? It is recycling because the C&D biomass is replacing a virgin product, coal, natural gas or oil. This saves on the GHGs that are emitted because one way or another, the wood was going to emit its GHGs, be it as a fuel or dying in a forest. By replacing those fossil fuels it keeps their GHGs in the ground. The benefit of this was shown in a study by Jenna Jambeck, PhD., UNH, a few years ago, be glad to send out a copy to anybody who is interested.

As for the little energy claim, C&D biomass burns at around 7,000 Btu/lb, better than virgin wood, which is not kiln dried. Last I checked, unlike coal, gas and oil, wood is renewable. And man has been using wood as fuel since before even I was born. Those in the C&D recycling industry, the ones actually doing the work, think C&D wood processed to a boiler specification is recycling. Granted, our industry would prefer higher end-value markets, but they aren’t there. So without the wood fuel market C&D recycling, including processing more difficult materials such as drywall and construction plastics, is not economically feasible. The deconstructionists will jump and say we should save every stick, but that is not practical or economically feasible, even when donating the material to a 501c3 to get a write off from the IRS.

Something hit the fan then. Apparently the “official” definition of recycling is only when a material is made into virtually the same thing again, such as an aluminum can back into another can. So just about everything from a C&D recycling facility, from C&D biomass to recycled aggregates used as roadbase, are not really recycling, and many here turned up their noses and considered them little better than diversion. Special disdain was reserved for C&D biomass being called recycling because that is competing against real recycling. You can guess what they thought of C&D fines used as ADC.

But in the end the consensus was heartening for many involved in the discussion; there is recognition that not all materials can be recycled according to their definition, and that a total waste management plan to reduce the amount of materials going for disposal looks at all alternatives, even fuels.