What do we do with mounting C&D debris?

The amount of construction and demolition debris handled in New Hampshire has increased by 50 percent over the last two years, yet there are fewer ways to dispose of it. New Hampshire lawmakers recently passed a moratorium on burning it. Massachusetts is instituting a ban on burying most of it. And Vermont won’t let contractors build unless they recycle what they can.

Meanwhile, the cost of disposing construction and demolition debris – known as C&D — continues to climb slowly upward. It now costs $82 a ton to dispose of C&D waste at Waste Management’s Turnkey landfill in Rochester. So far, most contractors — beset by rapidly rising labor, fuel and material price increases — hardly notice, but those who have looked at it are starting to get concerned.

For instance, Keene-based MacMillin Company’s disposal costs have increased by 22 percent in the last three years, said the construction company’s chief operating officer, Steve Horton.

The company – like others in the industry – has responded by separating materials out and recycling as much as possible.

“Ten years ago, it was cheaper to throw everything away. Now it’s more profitable to salvage the material,” he said.

New Hampshire either buried or processed 625,171 tons of C&D debris last year, a 50 percent increase in the last two years, according to preliminary figures released by the state Department of Environmental Services. More than half that waste is processed by two New Hampshire companies, where what is recyclable is separated and sold off, with the remainder landfilled.

Where that waste is coming from and where it is going is unclear. Last year, the state’s processors imported 284,043 tons of C&D debris. While it’s not clear how many tons of imports are making it into state landfills, officials estimate that its at least a third. All told, the amount of C&D buried in New Hampshire landfills over the last two years has risen to 270,000 tons.

Alarming increase

No one is sure why the amount of C&D waste has gone up in New Hampshire. Some question the accuracy of the figures, which don’t take into account loads of both C&D and municipal waste, or account for a variety of reporting methods. Others point to the increase of construction, particular in remodeling

“People can’t afford to buy a new house, so they take what they have and remodel it,” said Donald Maurer, principal planner of waste prevention at DES.

There is no immediate crisis — the state has another two decades of landfill life in it — but that forecast assumes no major increases in disposal.

“You are trying to keep things out of landfills to keep that capacity,” said Michael Guilfoy, supervisor of solid waste permitting and compliance at DES.

The C&D waste is hogging up landfill space at an alarming rate. The Mt. Carberry landfill in Berlin, for instance, just opened in 2003 and C&D waste already accounts for nearly half of what is buried there. In fact, that facility contains as much C&D waste as the much larger Turnkey landfill in Rochester, though some of Turnkey’s waste is shipped to a processor to be salvaged. (Part of the reason for the large amounts at Mt. Carberry can be explained by cost — the landfill charges no more than $60 a ton for C&D waste, three-quarters of the charge at Turnkey.)

Most of the wood in C&D debris — which accounts for about a quarter of the waste stream — is chopped up at the state’s two major processors, LL&S Wood Processing Plant in Salem and Environmental Resource Return Corp. (ERRCO) in Epping. It’s then shipped to Maine, one of the few states in the Northeast that allows C&D waste to be burned to generate electricity. Other parts of the waste stream – such as brick and metals – are reused elsewhere. But some of that waste also finds its way into local landfills.

Alarmed at the rapid increase in landfilling, the New Hampshire DES took to encouraging the burning of C&D wood.

“You bury it in a landfill it takes up valuable space,” said Maurer. “If you burn it, you get something out of it. That’s why we do waste-to-energy facilities.”

(The state’s two main trash-burning incinerators – in Claremont and Concord – are not permitted to accept commercial C&D waste and would turn it away, despite a DES Web site’s claim to the contrary. Indeed, they wouldn’t take C&D even if they could, “because we have enough solid waste to deal with,” said Peter Kendrigan, plant manager at Claremont.)

That’s why DES quickly permitted BioEnergy LLC’s plan to convert its virgin wood-burning plant in Hopkinton to one that would burn C&D wood chips without requiring any additional pollution controls.

The state was permitting the plant to emit as many as 2.6 tons of lead annually, but the permit eventually was revoked, due to the revelation – first reported last year by New Hampshire Business Review — that one of the company’s principals had a felony conviction.

Community opposition was so strong against the plant that the Legislature recently passed a moratorium on all C&D burning until the issue is studied further. That not only put a halt to the Bio Energy plant, but proposed plants in Hinsdale and Barnstead as well.

Mass. targets burial

Activists who have been fighting such plants haven’t really put forth an alternative solution for the C&D dilemma, though they don’t oppose all incineration.

Scott Flood, president of REACH for Tomorrow, the activist’s lobbying arm, said that Maine’s rules — with their more stringent regulations on pollution control, limits of 50 percent C&D wood fuel content and municipal controls – were preferable.

And, said Flood, “If you are going to burn, you should just burn New Hampshire’s wood, not make New Hampshire the dumping ground of the entire region,” Flood said.

Along with moratorium, New Hampshire lawmakers instituted a C&D study committee and approved Best Available Control Technology requirements on any future incinerators.

Both are steps in the right direction, said Flood. “If you want to do it, you should do it right, with new technology,” Flood said.

Maine itself is looking at more stringent controls on the type of wood it burns and the type of controls it requires on incinerators.

But newer technology is usually more expensive, which should be reflected in the cost of processing.

Meanwhile, the state of New Hampshire has not made it any easier to bury C&D debris. Processors have been able to reduce tonnage at landfills not just by separating wood, but removing concrete and metals. In doing so, the processors grind up much of the rest into fine powder that could be used as landfill cover. These “fines” include whiteboard or gypsum particles, which degrade into a gas, whose smell not only offends most people but could – in strong enough concentrations – actually be toxic. The state has since banned the practice of using such “fines,” though it will allow landfills to dilute the gypsum with more dirt – a practice that raises the cost of the procedure.

While burying C&D waste is becoming more difficult in New Hampshire, it will soon be against the law in Massachusetts.

The Bay State is working on banning asphalt, brick, concrete metal and wood at landfills by the fall, with the hopes of diverting 4.5 million tons out of the ground. Eventually the state hopes to divert shingles, gypsum and other parts of the C&D waste stream. It hopes that 14 processors (four of which are in the pipeline) will have enough capacity to handle the increased waste.

But will anyone take all of what the processors dish out?

“We could expand,” said Leo Larochelle, general manager of ERRCO. “But we need to have markets to handle the materials.”

Rising costs

While Massachusetts is heading off landfilling C&D waste on the back end, Vermont is pushing recycling on the front end.

The Green Mountain State doesn’t have any C&D-processing facilities or incinerators. The waste either is landfilled or trucked out of state. But the state requires that contractors with projects of more than 10,000 square feet (the equivalent of five houses) come up with a waste reduction plan. And the plan can’t just say that they will dump it all in a landfill either.

“We know the markets,” said Buzz Surwilo, an environmental analyst with the Vermont Solid Waste Program. “We know that you can ship sheetrock to Newington, N.H., to recycle it. So if you aren’t going to recycle, you aren’t going to build.”

Contractors haven’t been too happy about the rules, Surwilo admitted. “Very few did this voluntarily. But we are pushing them in that direction and are gently bringing them along. They were clueless, and now they are much more proactive.”

Contractors, of course, have a different take.

“It just adds another layer of regulation,” said Horton, of the MacMillin Company, which does a fair amount of work in Vermont.

Still, Horton agrees that recycling is the wave of the future. Better sorting would limit how much is in the landfill, and make sure that only the right things go into an incinerator. All that will mean increased regulation.

“When you come to old buildings, you have to be careful whether you burn plastics or lead paint, so you can limit potential toxins,” he said. “Limiting what goes in is the real problem. How do you control it? Who validates the qualities of the waste stream?”

Better recycling might slow the increased disposal costs, but it would increase a company’s labor costs. Either way, he said, “I don’t think the costs will go down. I think the costs will only go up.”

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