Regulation alone doesn’t solve material-reuse market’s issues

A trailer bed made of used lumber, carrying more used lumber (Reuse Warehouse Houston/Flickr)

Pats on the back likely went around the government offices of Cook County, the borders of which surround Chicago, as the region’s board of commissioners passed the Demolition Debris Diversion (3D) Ordinance in July 2012. The law regulates the amount of waste demolition contractors can send to the landfill from projects within the county, but outside the city.

“Recycling demolition is another important step toward building a greener Cook County,” said county president Toni Preckwinkle at the time. “The benefits go beyond positive environmental impacts. This also creates jobs, stabilizes local economies and creates materials for construction, renovation, and infrastructure building.”

Four years on, more tepid in their enthusiasm have been the city’s demolition contractors, who say that the area’s recycling market already exists but that the material-reuse market Preckwinkle envisioned is still in in its infancy and needs help to grow before they can make money off it. Local design school and industry think tank Archeworks is working to bolster the market’s natural expansion through a multi-tiered education campaign meant to help incentivize material collection and sales. And, if the market takes off, it could serve as an effective new model for the many budding reuse markets cropping up in other places across the US that have also enacted zero-waste and construction-recycling ordinances in recent years.

3D Ordinance Well-Intentioned but Incomplete

Thomas Robinette, president of Robinette Demolition

According to the International Living Future Institute, construction and demolition waste makes up approximately 48 percent of the nation’s waste stream, and Cook County’s ordinance is meant to curb that locally. It first stipulates that demolition contractors must steer 70 percent of the building materials from their projects away from landfills toward recycling or reuse—a requirement that’s not hard to meet

“If you recycle the concrete, recycle the brick, recycle the structural steel, that easily achieves your 70 percent,” says Thomas Robinette, president of Robinette Demolition, in Oakbrook Terrace, IL, and a former president of the National Demolition Association.

But, the demolition contractors must also divert another 5 percent of a project’s materials specifically toward reuse when tearing down homes, and this requirement has proven more difficult, largely because the market for reused materials is still developing and not all materials have as great a return on investment as others.

“Sec. 30-965. Demolition Debris Diversion Requirements.

(a) Except as provided in section 30-967, applications for a demolition permit will be subject to the following Demolition Debris Diversion Requirements:

(1) Any residential building is subject to a minimum five percent (5%) by weight reuse requirement and a minimum total seventy percent (70%) by weight diversion requirement.

(2) Any non-residential building is subject to a seventy percent (70%) by weight recycling requirement with reuse encouraged whenever possible.”

-Cook County 3D Ordinance

“We’ve been around since 1954, and since 1954 we’ve been selling to scrap-metal guys.” says Art Mandell, president of Chicago-based National Wrecking. “We sell bricks, we’re saving timbers—whatever we can save money on, we’re saving.” But he adds that the process gets more difficult when you’re dealing with, say, the many dilapidated houses in less affluent portions of the county. Demolition firms in the Chicagoland area typically employ union labor, and it’s cost-prohibitive to have such workers take out doors, fixtures, and other smaller items from a house that’s otherwise largely unsalvageable. Also, the contractors haven’t seen many with the proper insurance vying to pay to take the materials off the job site on their own.

“They want you to pay everyone $40 an hour, with $30 in benefits,” Mandell says. “But you’re supposed to be selling the doors for $5 a pop, in a crappy neighborhood, and this house is dilapidated. That’s why they’re wrecking it. It’s just not realistic. It’s very difficult to get that 5 percent. Who takes it out? Who pays to remove it? And how much money are you getting for it?”

Used solid-core, mahogany-veneer doors (Reuse Warehouse Houston/Flickr)

Anne Nicklin, executive director at the Chicago-based Building Materials Reuse Association (BMRA), concedes the difficulties but sees more of an opportunity for someone willing to take it. “For [these] other materials, there aren’t currently easily accessible markets, so there’s not a person that you can call in Chicago and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a commercial building, it’s full of five-year-old solid-core doors, I’ve got thousands of them,’ ” she says. “Those doors are hugely valuable, but right now, unfortunately, we don’t have somebody who’s made it their business to collect and sell those doors.”

Archeworks Wants to Help Drive Demand

“We know that because of our ordinance, we’ve been successful at increasing the supply of [reused] materials,” Cook County’s chief sustainability officer, Deborah Stone, said in a recent BuiltWorlds SmartWorlds episode. “We know that there’s been more materials going to the reuse centers that have been popping up in the county in the last several years. But what we don’t know and what we really don’t have an impact on is the demand for those materials.”

Without increased demand, it will be harder to get the larger market off the ground that demolition contractors are seeking. That’s where Archeworks comes in. The nonprofit has been collaborating with the Cook County Department of Environmental Control, the BMRA, the Chicago-based Rebuilding Exchange, and several design firms since 2015 to conduct studies and put together educational materials, displays, and shows related to the 3D Ordinance and the material-reuse market in Chicago. The hope is that building awareness of the market’s potential, through a program called “The Wa$ted Market,” will encourage more businesses to crop up throughout the county to take on the material load.

“Reuse has been going on for years and years,” says Archeworks executive director Andrew Balster. “It’s just that it’s really small and fragmented, and it’s a lot of people talking to the same people. So, it just hasn’t allowed for any sort of development of an actual market.”

Archeworks is collaborating with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management on OrangePrint, a pilot training program meant to help ex-felons find work in the reuse sector. And some of the organization’s postgraduate students have studied ways to partner with big-box stores to distribute reusable materials to their established customer bases, while others have explored the possibility of an online platform that could predict materials expected to become available from upcoming tear-downs.

Additionally, Archeworks is working on a publication, Post <> Building, meant to build awareness of reused building materials while introducing alternative uses for them; asphalt shingles, for example, can be used as cold patch for potholes. Studying alternative uses for used materials is one of Archeworks’s ongoing goals, particularly as Chicago’s demolition contractors begin bringing down newer buildings that don’t have the valuable vintage materials and fixtures of historical structures.

““We need to make incentives. … I throw so much away, I can’t go to sleep at night. It’s brutal.””

— Art Mandell, National Wrecking

“I’ve also talked about doing, essentially, a preliminary job fair for a market that doesn’t quite exist yet,” Balster says. “It’s detailing all the different opportunities to get training and certification. … We’d like to do [some of these fairs] in southern suburban Cook County, in some of the areas where there’s a lot of building stock right now. It’s either in eminent domain or it’s at the end of its lifecycle. You start to look at it as a massive opportunity for job creation and economic growth.”

Mandell, for one, is heartened by these plans. “That’s great,” he says. “That’s what we need to do. We need to make incentives for stuff like that. I throw so much away, I can’t go to sleep at night. It’s brutal.”

Looking Ahead, Beyond

Of course, the problems Archeworks is addressing aren’t unique to Cook County or Illinois. Already a number of other cities and regions, particularly in the West and pockets of the South, are either pursuing a zero-waste initiative or implementing some sort of demolition-recycling ordinance. Cities in the Midwest, including Detroit and Gary, are tearing down whole neighborhoods of older blighted structures at a rapid pace while closing down landfills at the same time. (Cook County closed its last landfill in 2015.) And in the east, Massachusetts recently passed a law saying it will no longer import out-of-state waste, and Connecticut passed one saying it won’t export any waste.

The regulations have driven some demand for reused materials, according to Nicklin, but additional help has been needed. In Portland, OR, for example, where an ordinance was passed within the past year, stipulating that all structures of 100 years or older must be razed through deconstruction—the process of picking apart a building piece by piece rather than knocking it over—the city has also hired a broker, Jordan Jordan of Earth Advantage, to help connect demolition contractors with different material vendors.

Anne Nicklin, executive director of the Building Materials Reuse Association

Cook County’s ordinance appears to be another step in the right direction. “Having that 5 percent reuse target is huge,” Nicklin says. “That’s incredibly innovative, and Cook County, and Deb Stone in particular, should be commended for that.”

But, for the region’s material-reuse economy to scale upward dramatically, its supporters will likely have to continue to find more ways to push demand. “We’re trying to be productive and make some money over here, and that’s the incentive behind our recycling program,” Mandell says. “We’ve got dozens of kinds of metals. We recycle plastic, wood. It’s got to pay, though. In my mind, you’re not going green unless you save some green.”

Just how much work is left to create a more lucrative materials-reuse market remains to be seen