Recycling Our Cities: Cook County’s Demolition Debris Diversion Program

DiversionBy Deborah C. Stone
Chief Sustainability Officer and Director
Cook County Department of Environmental Control

Did you know that nationwide, about 40% by weight of material that goes into our landfills comes from buildings? Cook County has only one remaining open landfill, which will close soon, meaning our communities will pay more to transport trash, and cause more diesel emissions into our air.

According to the Building Material Reuse Association (BMRA), on average, 25% of a home’s materials by weight can be reused instead of being landfilled, thus diverting materials from the waste stream and generating economic development opportunities associated with reuse. The majority of the remaining materials can be recycled.

Did you know that, as a result of a recent Cook County ordinance, about 90% of materials from building demolitions and renovations is now being either recycled or, better yet, reused? The County is well on its way to achieving a virtuous cycle of building materials, where what comes out of buildings is recognized for the high quality and economic value it often has, and returned to use in the community. As part of this vision, jobs are created in recycling, warehousing, transporting and transforming these materials, as well as in building deconstruction, a way of taking buildings apart that is more labor intensive but captures more of the materials and economic value in the buildings.

The Ordinance

The Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance took effect November 21, 2012, establishing a program for recycling and reuse of construction and demolition waste in suburban Cook County. This 3D Ordinance was developed with help from our nonprofit partner, the Delta Institute, and with input from demolition contractors, environmental groups and others.

This ordinance introduced reuse and recycling requirements to help Cook County reduce the amount of construction and demolition waste generated at the source, while regulating the flow of material to cut back open dumping. The ordinance helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from within the recycled/reused materials when it’s disposed in a landfill as well as the greenhouse gas emissions that would be created from extracting new raw materials and manufacturing new building components.

The County aims for contractors to recover materials that would otherwise be discarded and return them to the economy while also generating jobs from the deconstruction of structures as well as recycling and reuse of demolition debris.

The ordinance requires that a minimum of 70% of all demolition debris generated in the demolition, dismantling or renovation of single-family, commercial and industrial structures be diverted from the waste stream.

It further mandates that a minimum 5% of the material in residential structures be reused. Reuse has even more environmental benefits than recycling, as it uses the components in their final manufactured form and avoids the energy use needed to recycle into new components, and wastes less of the materials.

Under the ordinance, contractors are required to submit a demolition debris diversion plan at the beginning of demolition projects that meet the 3D criteria, as a condition of receiving a demolition or renovation permit from Cook County.

Cook County contracted with the Delta Institute in order to research and help develop the Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance. The research included the development of a deconstruction training program, which was used as a pilot project to determine the viability of requiring reuse as well as recycling of demolition debris.

The 3D Ordinance has gained recognition far and wide. Cook County is the first local government in the Midwest to require the reuse of building material. Contractors have been able to glean high value lumber for a second life as structural beams in new houses, along with brick, doors and windows, kitchen and bathroom fixtures.

Others, including Hennepin County, MN, Minneapolis, MN, Bloomington, IN, Detroit, MI and Vancouver, British Columbia, are studying the 3D Ordinance in order to develop similar policies. And the ordinance was awarded the Walnut Gavel award by the BMRA for progressive policy in 2013.

Economic Development

Beyond its obvious impact on the waste stream, the 3D ordinance has helped spur economic development. Since its enactment, additional reuse warehouses—facilities used to store and sell reclaimed building materials—have opened. According to the Construction and Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA), the tonnage of materials being handled by members increased in 2013, leading to their most financially lucrative year since 2005.

Additional industries, which use reclaimed materials, are starting to develop. There is a burgeoning market for furniture, artwork and household items made from reclaimed lumber and/or recycled building materials. For example, Pottery Barn now has over 20 items in their catalogue that are made from reclaimed building materials. Many restaurant and grocery chains are using furnishings made from reclaimed materials for interior decor.

Use of Technology

Tracking compliance with the 3D ordinance is critical, and to simplify the reporting requirements, Cook County asks that demolition contractors use the Green Halo System to record their recycling plan and recycling manifests. The Green Halo System allows contractors to submit demolition debris diversion plans and waste diversion reports and helps the users locate recycling and/or reuse facilities quickly and efficiently. The County has made the system available to contractors for free to simplify the way they track waste and recycling from demolition and construction projects. It also helps ensure that recycling requirements are met.

The use of the Green Halo System has made reviewing the demolition debris diversion plans and waste diversion reports required by the ordinance much faster. And because the Green Halo System is free for contractors as it is for local governments, there are no new costs to contractors.

Results

To date, over 312,000 tons of demolition debris have been recycled, 60,000 tons of demolition debris have been salvaged and/or reused and only a little over 40,000 tons of demolition debris have been landfilled. Based on the data received, waste diversion rates for the eligible projects average 90% by weight, far exceeding minimum requirement of 70% diversion.

Business for existing reuse facilities and warehouses, such as the ReBuilding Exchange in Chicago, have increased since the ordinance was enacted. Since the Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance has gone into effect, a third reuse warehouse has opened in Cook County and several municipalities are researching the feasibility of opening their own reuse facilities. Furthermore, one of the existing reuse facilities, the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, has gone from a volunteer-based staff to hiring full-time staff members.

Representatives of the CDRA have indicated that the tonnage of materials being handled by members increased in 2013, leading to their most financially lucrative year since 2005. In addition, the Green Halo System has allowed reporting to be almost completely electronic, thus reducing the amount of paper and postage used by Cook County and the demolition contractors and decreasing the carbon footprint of both groups.

We are well on our way to a business model that no longer sees “waste” but recognizes the valuable materials that we are constantly removing from our built environment.

Photo: Nitram242

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Comments

One Response to “Recycling Our Cities: Cook County’s Demolition Debris Diversion Program”
  1. Delores Lyon says:

    I think that this is a super awesome program. It would mean that the city would be able to get new buildings even when there is no new property. Plus, I am sure that the controlled demolition can help ensure that the building is removed quickly and effectively.

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