Waste not, want not

Sacramento region plans to encourage recycling of construction and demo waste

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears in this space weekly.

I’ve lived in both Sacramento and San Jose. While I much prefer the former to the latter, if I had to choose where I lived based on that area’s ability to recycle construction and demolition waste, I’d be headed south.

Construction and demolition waste—known as “C&D”—consists of the debris left over from the construction and demolition of buildings. These materials include concrete, asphalt, wood, metals and glass, and account for 20-30 percent of the garbage in our landfills. Such waste doesn’t just threaten the environment, it needlessly squanders valuable building materials that could easily be recycled.

So if it’s so easy to recycle, why isn’t the Sacramento region doing it? Current regulations require contractors to recycle job-site waste, but a substantial economic disincentive exists: The “tipping fee” charged by disposal sites that separate waste for recycling is double the fee charged at landfills that don’t separate the waste. Because there are thousands of contractors in the region, ensuring they’re all following the rules is a regulatory nightmare.

That’s why the city of San Jose came up with what’s being praised as an innovative recycling plan, the Construction & Demolition Deposit for Diversion Program. The plan’s brilliance lies in its simplicity. Instead of attempting to regulate thousands of individual contractors, the city has elected to certify waste-disposal facilities that separate C&D debris, which are far fewer in number.

When contractors apply for a building permit, they’re assessed a fee based on the project and its square footage. Then they’re given a choice: They can either use one of the city’s certified C&D disposal sites and receive a rebate, or they can design their own recycling program, with the extra expense and red tape that entails.

Stephen Bantillo, assistant director for the San Jose Department of Conservation, is the architect of the plan. He likens it to the way bottles and cans are recycled—you pay a deposit at the time of purchase, and if you want your money back, you follow the recycling instructions.

Since the program was put in place two years ago, administrative costs have been cut significantly. Builders no longer have to run their own recycling programs. Instead of having to check every single building site for proper waste disposal, the regulators only have to inspect the licensed disposal facilities.

Best of all, the amount of C&D waste flowing into San Jose’s landfills has been reduced from 31 percent to 21 percent, garnering the program support from the environmental sector, waste haulers and the building community.

Believe me, when you can get all three of those parties to agree, you must have one heck of a plan on your hands. That’s why the Sacramento Regional Solid Waste Authority, under the direction of new chair Sandy Sheedy, acting general manager Paul Philleo, task force member Pat Quinn and the city of Sacramento’s Marty Strauss, is currently developing a similar program. It may be in place in a matter of months. Which is good, because I really enjoy living here.