Fork in the Road
How the apartment industry can take the path away from landfills.
By Barbra Murray, Contributing Editor
It’s so tempting. During a redevelopment project, it’s easy to look at some debris—tattered avocado-green carpet from a 1970s-era lobby, the remnants of a hideously wallpapered wall hiding water-stained stucco—and determine that it has no use, aside from decorating the local landfill. But the landfill does not have to be the end of the line for much of the material that finds its way into garbage bins during the construction or redevelopment of a multifamily property. Trash can indeed be treasure.
It’s really quite simple. “You are actually creating an economic and environmental liability when you landfill or incinerate waste materials and you’re creating an environmental asset when you recover them,” says Marti Matsch, communications director for Eco-Cycle—a non-profit recycling and “zero-waste” organization. Consequences aside, there’s the fact that we just don’t have enough space for it all.
One doesn’t have to be an environmentalist to know that the nation’s landfills can only accommodate so much trash, or to use the more dignified term, “municipal solid waste” (MSW). Of the approximately 260 million tons of MSW Americans generated in 2010, 54.2 percent took a ride to a landfill, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Construction and development waste (C&D) is part of the package.
Different municipalities have different rules when it comes to garbage classification. In Connecticut, for example, a great deal of C&D materials—including carpeting, insulation wallboard, siding, roofing scraps and the like—fall under the category of MSW, and as noted by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, it is widely accepted that approximately 15 to 20 percent of MSW in the U.S. comes from construction and demolition sites.
The multifamily industry is not oblivious to the importance of waste diversion; the reuse of bricks is hardly unusual during a redevelopment endeavor, nor is the repurposing of wood or the recycling of metal and plastics. However, so much construction site material can be rerouted from landfills and subsequently reinvented.
A pile of crumbling old ceiling tiles from a former community room, for example, wouldn’t be hard to find in a landfill, but it doesn’t have to be there at all. Armstrong World Industries’ Armstrong Commercial Ceilings kicked off its ceiling recycling program in 1999, and today, it carries the distinction of being the longest-running such program in the country. It evolved after Armstrong teamed up with Microsoft when the tech company was in search of a way to utilize the ceilings from a corporate campus redevelopment endeavor.
Through the program to date, roughly 125 million square feet of materials from commercial and multifamily properties across the U.S. and parts of Canada have been recycled, accounting for 61,500 tons of diverted construction waste. When large quantities of ceiling material are involved, Armstrong will show up on the project site with their own trucks and do all the loading and removal. “Contractors can save on landfill fees and shipping fees for taking the materials to the landfill, as well as the cost of dumpsters and their logistics issues,” Anita Snader, environmental sustainability manager for Armstrong Commercial Ceilings, says. “When they’re tearing that material down instead of putting it in a dumpster, they can stack it on palettes, and those palettes can be loaded onto the truck and come back to our plant. 100 percent of that ceiling goes back to make a new product. So that’s kind of a unique benefit in the ceiling industry, that we’re able to utilize that ceiling to increase the post-consumer content in our new products. We refer to it as a closed-loop process.”
From ceiling to floor and points in between, there are opportunities to sidestep landfills, and carpet fits within those parameters. Roughly 3.4 billion pounds of carpet were discarded in the U.S. in 2010, according to a report by the Carpet and Rug Institute. The floor coverings could have had an afterlife, and carpet recycling is not a new game. “Some of the first things that I recall is that carpet was being recaptured and then turned into plastic pellets that became the new raw material, and then that raw material was sent out to a variety of manufacturers,” recounted Michael Elzufon, CEO of Real Development Corp.—a development company specializing in new construction and the renovation and restoration of historic buildings. Elzufon is also the founder and former CEO of Renovation Systems and remains an investor in the products and services provider to the multi-housing industry in Minnesota’s Twin City area. “Some of the first products I remember seeing were things like picnic tables or bumpers out in the parking lot, and other sorts of outdoor permanent fixtures,” he noted.
But that was then, and this is now. Today, old carpet is made new again. “Manufacturers have developed a way to re-extrude that raw material into a whole new category of actual finished carpet so there is a portion of the recycled carpet that is returning back into the market as recycled carpet—brand-spanking new. It’s just using that redone raw material,” Elzufon explained. “And as the supply of recycled materials continues to increase, naturally the technologies and the downstream of what the raw material can be utilized for will continue to expand.”
Diverting organic waste
Redirecting carpet, tiles, drywall and the like from landfills is not a difficult practice to incorporate into development projects; however, recycling food waste in the post-construction phase is a concept that is more difficult to embrace.
Forest City Enterprises, a national developer of commercial properties with a portfolio that includes a vast and diverse list of apartment communities, has not shied away from anything green, particularly since the company’s decision over a decade ago to make sustainability one of its core values. Forest City is a role model in the arena of environmentally friendly commercial and multifamily development, and like a true leader, the company acknowledges the hurdles faced in the pursuit of higher greenness, including the diversion of food waste from landfills.
“Where does it go, where are you storing this for pickup,” is the question posted by Jill Ziegler, program manager of sustainability initiatives at Forest City. “It’s just a fact that there’s an issue with storage of this material,” Ziegler notes. “With compost you have to be careful, because it’s food and there could be fruit flies, there could be a smell. Getting it from the apartments to wherever it needs to go would essentially be dependent upon the residents, so it’s really going to have to be a self-serve type of situation unless it’s a brand new building and you could put in some sort of a state-of-the-art composting area.”
According to Eco-Cycle’s Matsch, “One of the biggest challenges for multifamily—and this is true across the country—is that when you’re trying to get collection bins set up, they don’t have any room because when the facility was built however many years ago, that wasn’t a consideration,” Matsch, remarks. “So they have room for trash, but they don’t have expanded room for the recycling and the composting.”
Ziegler concurs. “With these older buildings it’s almost like a retrofit. You need to find space and if they don’t have, say, a big parking lot where they can park another dumpster, it’s really difficult to squeeze that space in. In theory the same amount of stuff is leaving the building, but there’s a transition period there where you’re going to need larger containers.”
Such accommodations for the separation of organic waste may not have materialized at Forest City’s apartment communities just yet, but the company is not averse to the idea, as it continues to build and redevelop across the country. “I think compost still has a little bit of a stigma to it because you see one fruit fly and immediately, ‘It’s because you’re composting,’ adds Ziegler. “It’s a difficult road, and there are some challenges, but I think people are starting to become more aware of composting.”