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Construction and demolition (C&D) debris has become an important focus of several communities across the U.S. On the West Coast, cities like San Francisco and San Diego have adopted or updated ordinances that mandate the recovery and disposal of C&D material.

Meanwhile, in the Seattle-Tacoma region of Washington, the issue goes beyond the city limits. In King County, specifically, which includes Seattle, C&D debris is regulated from start to finish to ensure it is safely handled by companies that are qualified to process it. While some processors believe increased regulations will hurt the industry, diversion has increased and the market for recovered materials has opened as a result.

“I would say that the general trend has been positive since we changed our system,” says Kinley Deller, program manager for King County’s Solid Waste Division. “I feel like they have taken on more, [and] material handlers have opened their doors to a wider range of material.”

Regulating forces

King County made the decision to regulate C&D debris to better ensure the health and safety of residents and to boost environmental protection. Deller says Washington state law gives local governments the responsibility to ensure waste, including C&D debris, is handled appropriately.

The county first began handling C&D material in the 1980s in partnership with various private landfills. However, those landfills began closing and, in the mid-90s, the county contracted with Houston-based WM, previously Waste Management Inc., and Phoenix-based Republic Services to handle collection of municipal and C&D material. The contracts were renewed in 2004 for 10 years and expired in 2015.

Deller says by the time the contracts ended, multiple facilities were available to handle the material, but because of how the contracts with WM and Republic were written, none of the facilities could accept the material legally.

“The contracts said construction and demolition materials generated in the county need[ed] to go to the contracted facilities, and those contracted facilities were [operated by] Waste Management and Republic,” Deller explains. “It didn’t have recycling in place for the most part, so we decided to change it and open up the market and make it so that the materials can go to the companies that are [recovering] a lot more material for recycling.”

In 2015, the county enacted legislation that would reexamine the previous requirements for C&D processing and set up a new system of checks and balances for waste operators. The county developed permitting guidance for construction projects and developed several “paths” for C&D material to ensure it got to recyclers and then to the proper landfill. The county also set up a certification system for businesses processing C&D materials.

“There are three main components of this program we put in place,” Deller says. “This includes designated or certified facilities, regulating construction and demolition materials and an enforcement program.”

First, if materials such as wood or metal are separated at a job site, they can go directly to a recycler. The second option is that materials are separated on-site, with recyclables going one way and waste going to a certified or designated C&D waste transfer facility. The third option is that material can go to a certified C&D processing facility for sorting, with the remaining waste going to a landfill.

King County enacted an ordinance in November 2021 that allows contractors to send nonrecyclable materials directly from a job site to a rail yard without having to go through a waste transfer station. Contractors now officially are required to submit a waste management plan explaining how they would remove the materials.

The vetting process

Facilities interested in processing C&D material in King County first must go through a vetting process, which includes an application process through which the county confirms with various permitting authorities that the companies are up to date with their permits and don’t have any violations. King County also checks with the local public health agency and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency—a Seattle-based environmental services agency—to ensure prospective companies have no reported issues with their facilities or collection capabilities.

In addition, the county has various requirements companies must meet once they’re certified. Processors are required to submit monthly reports detailing what they accept at their facilities, what is shipped and how the material is managed. Companies also must allow the county to audit their records and agree to send waste material to an approved landfill.

For material generated in King County, processors pay $4.25 per ton for the portion that ends up in landfill.

“It is a significant allocation of money and manpower to set up the facility as per the county’s requirements and to maintain the record-keeping for the facility,” says Tom Vaughn, CEO of DTG Recycling, based in Bothell, Washington.

King County uses income generated from landfill fees to help enforce its collection regulations. The county employs a full-time enforcement officer who inspects the facilities quarterly to ensure they are meeting standards. The inspector also monitors material that enters the facilities and ensures the outgoing waste is sent to the correct landfill.

The county tracks C&D permits that have been pulled so it can monitor progress on the projects and make sure the contractors working on the jobs know how to properly handle material when it comes time to transport them.

“If we see somebody taking materials to a place that it’s not supposed to be going, there are a few things we can do,” Deller says. “We can send them a letter saying what was observed and how to correctly handle it. If it happens again, we send a second warning and then, if it is done a third time, there is a citation.”

Once the material is processed, it must go to a municipal solid waste landfill for disposal, Deller says.

In the Seattle-Tacoma region, there are various countywide landfill bans on wood, cardboard and metal, which has driven tons to designated facilities like DTG Recycling. Before these regulations, C&D material was a significant component of materials being placed in local landfills.

“This regulatory structure has significantly decreased the amount of C&D material going to the landfill and greatly contributed to the region’s overall landfill diversion success,” Vaughn says.

“If this stuff never hits our doorstep, we never would have come up with these innovative products and been able to reuse these materials.” – Tom Vaughn, CEO, DTG Recycling

Reaping the benefits

While King County’s regulation and enforcement of C&D materials are strict, Vaughn says his company has seen a greater flow of material and increased end markets, noting that the regulations drive a large portion of the county’s waste stream to recycling facilities rather than to landfill. Vaughn says over the last five years, DTG has seen a consistent upward trend in C&D debris being processed at its facilities.

The most common materials recycled through these regulations are wood, metal, concrete and asphalt.

“It provided an opportunity for DTG to come up with innovative ways to recycle material,” Vaughn says. “Had these materials gone straight to the landfill, we never would have been challenged in this way.”

For example, DTG recycles old drywall as gypsum fertilizer, repurposes low-value plastics as building materials and makes sand from discarded glass.

“If this stuff never hits our doorstep, we never would have come up with these innovative products and been able to reuse these materials,” he says.

Since the county passed its C&D waste regulations in 2015, Deller says more material has been collected for recycling. Between 2015 and 2019, King County saw a 25 percent increase in C&D material diverted for recycling.

Vaughn adds that the regulations have been so successful for the community and his business, he predicts more will be enacted. Specifically, he says he believes regulations for mattresses and different types of plastics will be implemented, though he is uncertain when that might be.

The author is the digital editor for Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at akamczyc@gie.net.