Consisting of more than 733,000 employers and roughly seven million employees, the construction industry is a major contributor to the U.S. economy.
Despite the pandemic-induced challenges, the multifamily sector posted a solid performance in 2021, with nearly 213,000 units delivered through midyear, according to Yardi Matrix data. In June, 863,500 units were under construction across the country, 334,000 of which are projected to be delivered by year-end, up 17 percent from last year and above 2019’s total when 307,000 units were added to the stock.
But what happens with the tons of construction waste generated from all these new projects? Ray Hatch, CEO & president of Quest Resource Management Group, shares his insights on handling construction waste and pursuing more sustainable building practices.
Tell us more about Quest’s history as a company. Why was it launched?
Hatch: Quest Resource Management Group was launched in 2007 as a national provider of waste and recycling services. The company was started to combat the ever-growing problem of business waste by recycling scrap tires under the name Quest Recycling Services LLC.
We expanded our reach as the size of the recycling industry increased over the years due to environmental concerns and crowded landfill spaces. As a result, Quest created additional opportunities and established multiple recycling programs for more than 100 impactful waste streams.
Today, we help businesses satisfy their environmental and sustainability goals and responsibilities. Using our deep expertise, we build client-specific solutions and address various waste streams and recyclables across industries, including multifamily and construction.
What is happening to construction waste today? How much of it is recycled?
Hatch: Unfortunately, the construction industry creates a number of waste streams that typically go straight to dumpsters or landfills due to the perceived costs and complexities of recycling.
A study by the Environmental Protection Agency stated that the U.S. produced nearly 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris in 2018, and about 75 percent of all construction waste was sent to landfills. If that waste isn’t handled correctly, it has the potential to release toxins into the ground and into our water supply which, naturally, impacts both the environment and public health at large.
That said, many of these materials—including concrete, certain metals and cardboard—can actually be recycled and live beyond their original purpose. By recycling and properly disposing of material waste such as these, construction sites can maintain cleaner and safer work conditions, allowing teams to work more effectively. It also conserves landfill space and reduces the environmental impact of producing new materials and overall building project expenses by avoiding purchase costs. Not to mention that it can create more jobs.
Careful examination of the inputs and outputs of construction has become increasingly important, especially as we look at the increased project demand created by today’s hot housing market.
How does the recycling process work?
Hatch: There are two fundamental ways to recycle construction materials: commingle or source separate.
Construction companies tend to lean towards commingling their waste materials because it’s a less costly option that saves space at job sites. When you commingle the recycling products—such as concrete, wood, cardboard and metal—haulers can take those items to a construction and demolition landfill or a construction recycling facility. The benefit is that these sites offer more comprehensive recycling compared to municipal solid waste landfills, which do not.
Once it goes to the C&D or construction recycling facility, the materials can be processed on-site or at other recycling facilities. Here are a few examples:
- Concrete is crushed up and used for road base.
- Wood is either sent to a compost facility or processed—mulched—on-site for commercial and residential use in gardens.
- Metal is sent to a metal recycling facility.
- Cardboard is transferred to a material recovery facility and is then forwarded to a paper mill that turns it back into cardboard.
- When there are no facilities to send the materials to be recycled, they will be sent to facilities to be reused.
When you take the source separate route, you will have three to five containers on-site. This requires training everyone on the job site, so they know how the materials are separated. You also need signage on the dumpsters with pictures of the materials. This process can cause difficulties with construction companies that have come-and-go employees. Additionally, when the containers get hauled off to be emptied, it is not always the same container that comes back to the job site, causing signage to be lost.
Who are your clients?
Hatch: Quest works with more than 40,000 companies nationwide and processes more than 1.4 million tons of materials annually across industries. A portion of this work includes investment, development and management services, as we partner with other companies that build structures and infrastructures to enhance people’s lives, work and communities.
Recycling rates vary from company to company, depending on their sustainability goals and what’s available in their area. However, a 70 percent to 80 percent recycling rate is achievable at almost every C&D and construction site.
What projects are you currently working on? Any project in particular you’d like to tell us about?
Hatch: One client that Quest works with is a national restoration company that provides aid for those who’ve faced extraordinary obstacles, such as fire or water damage, mold or cleanup. Quest assists in its mission by putting equipment on-site to maximize its operational efficiencies and sustainability objectives.
We are also seeing a lot of activity with ghost kitchens, a burgeoning niche market that is seeing even greater growth due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tell us more about your relationship with USGBC’s LEED certification program.
Hatch: Quest stays up to date on the changes and requirements of LEED. Getting a LEED certification is driven by either the building company or the city in which the project is being built. General contractors are the ones who inform us on whether or not it’s going to be a LEED project.
With LEED projects, monthly reports are sent to general contractors that show what materials are being diverted from the landfill. Then, it’s up to a general contractor to submit those reports to USGBC to get the certification for the building. Some projects may meet the LEED requirements but opt out of getting the certification because of its price. However, general contractors still record how much and what materials are being diverted from the landfill.
What strategies proved successful in helping owners of real estate projects embrace green building practices?
Hatch: The first and most important step in adopting green building practices is careful planning and organization. Project managers can create more sustainable business operations by frequently evaluating their inputs and outputs. With careful inventory management, waste reporting and an awareness of the changing costs of recycled materials, project managers can avoid producing massive amounts of waste. Knowledge through accurate and robust waste analyses not only helps our health and planet but also leads to more profitable margins.
Most project managers want to embrace green building or operational strategies because consumers are looking for them these days. It makes properties more appealing if built and maintained with eco-friendly strategies, such as a recycling program for an apartment complex or a door-to-door service that makes recycling more convenient for residents.
In terms of effective strategies, it has to be easy to implement and must arrive at cost-neutral or better. At Quest, we’re always willing to do the work, but we have to make sure the client gets back what we all put in.
What are your thoughts on the legislation associated with construction waste management?
Hatch: Legislation must be evaluated with both short- and long-term impacts in mind. You have to look at the economic and environmental impacts and the long-term solutions that edge into it.
Recycling’s current growth is greatly driven by the free market and specifically the increase in landfill costs. As the economics sway toward recycling, companies will more aggressively pursue more sustainable practices. Ultimately, our goal is to help businesses accomplish exactly that, by reducing their waste footprint, mitigating risk and improving worksite safety. We want to ensure organizations deliver the best-in-class service to their clients while meeting economic and sustainability goals.
Are there any changes you’d apply to the current legislation?
Hatch: Most legislation for construction waste is at the state and municipal levels. This causes significant challenges to ensure you’re fully compliant based on the location of the job site. Costs increase to manage compliance and mitigate risk because of the fractured legislative framework.
With sustainability, as well as ESG becoming the core platform driving today’s business, we expect to see the free market and more comprehensive legislation at all levels will drive more sustainable waste solutions.