Recycling materials from demolition and construction would seem to be a logical and worthy endeavor. Wood, glass, concrete and other building supplies should be reused, but it may be surprising to know that this is not something that has been common practice for very long. Devens Recycling Center in Massachusetts, however, is recovering up to eighty percent of recyclable materials from demolition sites to be reused in many other end markets. We spoke with its founder Kurt Macnamara about the tests a specialty company goes through and how recycling 1,500 tons a day can wreak havoc on customized machinery.
Kurt has been in the recycling business for over twenty-five years. Working in the world of construction, he thought there would be a good opportunity and need for recycling construction debris. There was talk about the reuse of items such as windows, doors and old toilets, but just ten years ago, few were doing this. There were only a few large-scale recycling facilities around the country, so the market was open.
“The doors potentially had lead paint on them. The windows were single pane, which did not meet the new R factor (effectiveness of insulated glass) for holding heat, which was up to triple pane. It didn’t seem viable,” says Kurt.
Kurt became involved with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The department was reaching out to people in the demolition world to see if there was anything that could be done to increase the recycling percentages on the demolition site of a building.
“Typically, we do a lot of source separating on a construction site. We scrap all the metal and pull up all the concrete, crush it and reuse it. We try to take very little to a landfill. Sometimes there are restraints, and we have no time or space to separate on the job site. So, we have to go off-site,” says Kurt.
At the Devens facility, materials are first taken to a huge warehouse space of 100,000 square feet. Mixed items are pulled apart with excavators and other large machines before being put on conveyor belts for separation. Wood, steel, concrete, carpeting and anything else that is valuable is pulled out of the stream for potential reuse. After that is accomplished, the next step is to look for secondary markets.
The wood is sent to Canada after being ground to mulch. This will be turned into particle board and pressed wood furniture. It has to be exported because there is currently no place in the U.S. doing this. It is quite costly, but Canadian firms are interested in this product. Environmental Protection Agency red tape stalls the secondary market in the recycling world.
“To even consider doing any kind of recycling initiative of a single stream product is difficult. This is why we have to truck it up to Canada,” says Kurt.
The concrete is sent to crushing facilities and used as sub-road material. The steel, aluminum, and cardboard are also recycled. Taking that volume of material out of a landfill prolongs the life of the landfill.
Devens opened just in time for the recession in August of 2007. The first year saw good business, and then the bottom fell out. No new construction taking place meant a lack of material to process. Survival was difficult, but Devens looked at this as an invaluable lesson.
“The recession was a good business school experience. We had to deal with banks trying to pull their loans on us. We had to find more markets and tried to get as much volume as possible. We were not making any money and guys were working half shifts, but we made it through,” says Kurt.
Business picked up in 2013 and 2014, but the challenges shifted. The waste industry became tied to commodity prices. If the price of steel goes down, selling it becomes more difficult. The same applies to cardboard, plastic, wood and glass. Kurt explains that the average consumer does not understand how recycling works.
“They think that the recycling material that goes in the tote at the end of the driveway is picked up for free, but there is money associated with processing their recyclables. This was putting a lot of pressure on the single stream processes. How do you recycle things, when it’s costing you more money to handle it than you are getting paid for it?” asks Kurt.
The bottom line is that consumers need to be educated. There has been discussion in the industry about getting the message out to people who want to have a smaller carbon footprint. The reality is that there is a cost associated with recycling.
Waste costs are also increasing as the amount of trash increases and communities run out of places to put it. Landfills are filling and closing in New England, and this is a highly populated area.
“We used to have some rural towns out in the western part of the state. Now these towns are seeing growing populations. It’s the old saying: Not in my backyard. For landfill sites, this is really taking its toll. The cost of handling the train and construction debris is getting more expensive because now we need to either truck it or rail out of state. There is an added cost to that,” says Kurt.
“Peterson makes these grinders that come from the forestry industry. They were making bigger grinders and wood chips for clear cutting. These grinders come in with the wood up, and the chips go to the sawdust mills. They make animal bedding out of it, which is considered as virgin wood,” says Kurt.
A number of different materials and products are made from forest chip or wood chip. The equipment for this was examined to see if it could be modified for the demolition, construction, or recycling industries. If a piece of metal gets into one of these grinders, that metal on metal can be quite damaging, but the grinders do have safety brakes. The grinder comes to a halt and the motor will shut down to protect it from any catastrophic damage.
Bailers are another important facet of the business and are stronger and faster than in the past. “People are shrink wrapping, which is also called making pallets out of municipal solid waste (MSW) or household trash. There are technologies out there to help with the handling of materials on the processing line,” says Kurt.
Devens’ equipment begins as a raw machine, such as an excavator from Caterpillar that must then be modified to cope with the challenging environment. The filtration systems are breathing dust all day, and the warehouse can have temperature extremes. The machines are upgraded and modified with cooling and hydraulic systems. The rolling stock (anything that moves around the building) is also given special attachments.
The life expectancy of a piece of equipment in the recycling centre is between four thousand and six thousand hours. At that point, it needs to be considered for replacement since these machines take such abuse. It is expensive to handle construction debris and trash is not cheap. The HVAC systems and other systems of a construction project are so much more expensive than the disposal on a construction site.
Workers stand on either side of large conveyor systems at picking stations or picking lines and remove things that are sought after. Cross magnets help to take steel out of the material eddy currents, which are air blowers that blow the paper into another conveyor belt. There is a vast variety of equipment that can be implemented into a recycling program.
For the future, the aim is to start collecting more raw material to build up the trucking fleet. This will feed the company and help it to become more self-sustaining. The purchase of another transfer station is not out of the question.
Devens has been a model for what a transfer station and processing facility should look like. It is totally indoors to limit its noise, dust and odor impact on the surrounding environment.
“What’s challenging is that if you look back twenty years, the cost of a dumpster was actually more expensive than it is today. That just shows you how dysfunctional the industry is, and that these guys are willing to drop their price at any cost to maintain volume coming into the facilities,” says Kurt.