Deconstructing construction

Revolutionizing our landfills won’t be as easy as skipping rope

Our guests: Julie Friedman, Edison Hicks, Jamie Cutlip, Bob Chase, Dave Ghirardelli, Winfred DeLeon, Michael Payan, Diana Suarez-Arguelles, Maria Kakutani, Greg Cerlenko, Bob Farley, Ken Cross, Dave Sikich, Evan Edgar, Scott Blunk and Peggy Fischer.

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

In sixth grade, I earned playground cred as the best Chinese jump-roper at my school. In high school, I hung out with jocks and honor students. My gig now, needless to say, is cush—society does the heavy-lifting, and I just write about it. You’ve likely deduced the obvious: This Eco-Warrior Princess knows a thing or two about being cool.

So imagine my disgust when I learned that each year Sacramentans throw 1.6 million tons of stuff into landfills. And that landfills nationwide account for one-third of methane emissions. And that methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Sacramento’s city-run landfill maxed out in the mid-1990s. Our solution? Send a couple dozen diesel-fueled, trash-filled dump trucks some 140 miles to Sparks, Nev. Um, didn’t landfills go out of style years ago when “reduce, reuse and recycle” caught on? Maybe they still bury trash in, like, Bakersfield?

It gets worse: 18.6 percent of the solid-waste stream Sacramentans generate is construction-and-demolition debris, or C&D. This definitely isn’t cool.

Taking matters into our own hands, SN&R invited 16 government and industry representatives to an eco-charrette (fancy term for “meeting”) to discuss regional efforts to minimize C&D’s impact on landfills.

As I mentioned earlier, C&D waste and recyclables come from construction, renovation, demolition and deconstruction of buildings. The waste can be wood, asphalt, concrete, drywall, metals, insulation, brick, glass, plastic and salvageable items such as doors, windows, and plumbing fixtures—not to mention trees, stumps, soil and rock from clearing sites.

C&D waste poses a major problem nationwide, making up nearly 40 percent of the total waste stream. “Mixed C&D is where waste reduction and recycling efforts need to be made,” argued Dave Ghirardelli, solid waste planner for the County of Sacramento, which operates Kiefer Landfill in Sloughhouse. State law mandated that jurisdictions divert 50 percent of total waste from landfills by the year 2000. The City of Sacramento missed the boat on that one, but has ramped up its efforts, setting a goal of up to 65 percent landfill diversion by 2012. The city’s also amending its C&D ordinance to balance incentives and requirements to meet these higher standards. In theory, this shouldn’t be a difficult goal to accomplish.

“Everything can be either reused or recycled as long as there’s a facility to take them to,” said Scott Blunk, president of GreenBuilt Consulting and Construction. For instance, lumber can be reused if taken apart properly during deconstruction, which means using more care than ripping it apart with a sledgehammer. Some builders, such as GreenBuilt and DPR Construction Inc., already make that extra effort. They don’t need more policies; they need more recycling facilities.

“You can have all the ordinances in place, but if you don’t have facilities to process those materials, it will do no good,” agreed Michael Payan, of the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

Sacramento has three C&D facilities, with a cumulative processing capacity of up to 2,000 tons per day. However, a lack of policy incentives, combined with the relatively low fees at Kiefer Landfill, means contractors often choose the more convenient and less expensive disposal option, according to Evan Edgar, owner of Fruitridge C&D Recycling Facility.

Ideally, recycling would take precedence over expense, as reusing 50 percent of C&D each year in Sacramento would equal removing 19,000 cars from the road. We could even generate biomass as a renewable energy source for electricity and vehicle fuel from recovered lumber.

Instead, we continue to dump this so-called “waste” into massive holes in the ground.

So why don’t we go the extra eco-mile with C&D? During the eco-charrette, we identified some reasons: Contractors won’t spend the extra time to separate and dispose of materials at recycling centers, or clients refuse to pay for this added cost; ordinances are a burden even for those trying to do the right thing, and land-use permitting processes keep C&D recycling facilities out of commission.

And, of course, because our vision has been short-sighted. One day landfills will be full. Then what? We only have a finite amount of space on this Earth to trash.

Dave Sikich, president of Atlas Disposal, offered his vision for the future: “I hope for the generations that come it will seem archaic to bury our garbage.”

Garbage, well, maybe one day we won’t even know the meaning of the word.