Dust covers everything inside EDCO’s construction-waste recycling plant in Lemon Grove. Misters attached to the rafters work to keep the dust down, but inside the airplane-hangar-size building, dust and mist combine to create the illusion of a dust storm.
Toward the center of the building, a large grapnel arm picks at a 40-foot-tall mountain of dry-rotted two-by-fours, chunks of concrete, and jagged pieces of Sheetrock. A loud clap resounds when the mechanized arm drops its load into a metal chute. The chute leads to a conveyor belt on a second floor that occupies one section of the building. Twirling rubber disks inside the chute propel the debris forward and spread it out on the belt, where a crew of workers sorts the material. Big chunks of concrete and drywall are tossed down chutes, adding to piles on the first floor; the remaining scraps continue down the belt, where large magnets rip nails from lumber. After the nails are scraped off the magnet, they’re deposited in the metal scrap pile. On the first floor, hunks of concrete are pulverized in a crusher and spread on top of a ten-foot-high concrete sand dune. Piles of metal scrap stand next to mounds of broken drywall and rolls of frayed carpet.
Steve South, EDCO’s president, says approximately 80 percent of the construction and demolition waste — or C&D waste — entering the facility will be recycled. Ground-up concrete is used as a subbase gravel for new roads and, if free of contaminants, as the dry aggregate for new concrete. Wood becomes mulch or an energy source for power plants. Crushed drywall is turned into a soil amendment that’s used on farms, and the plastic from old carpet is refashioned into carpet padding.
“The fact is that the landfill in Miramar is nearing capacity,” South says, “and something needed to be done. A lot of people fail to see the valuable resource that we have in Miramar. Once it is full, there’s no turning back, and what are we going to do then?”
Of the 1.4 million tons of waste dumped at Miramar Landfill every year, 400,000 tons are construction debris. According to the City of San Diego’s website, the landfill will reach capacity between 2011 and 2013. It is the only dump the City owns.
“I can’t stress the importance of diversion of C&D waste from Miramar enough,” says South. “It’s so important for people to recognize, and we need to do everything we can to encourage and promote the diversion of as much of the waste as possible.”
Since EDCO’s recycling plant opened in January 2007, it has operated far below capacity. Although it’s capable of accepting 1000 tons of demolition debris per day, only an average of 250 tons has arrived.
The reason for the slow start can be attributed to cost. Until recently, Miramar Landfill charged $46 per ton to dump construction waste. EDCO charged $65. “It was cheaper to bury it than to recycle it,” says South.
On April 1, the City of San Diego raised Miramar’s price to $92 per ton. Then, starting on July 1, an ordinance will go into effect that requires building contractors to pay a deposit on the construction waste that a project is expected to generate. According to the City’s Environmental Services website, the deposits can range from $200 to $50,000, depending on the type of project and its square footage. If the contractor recycles 50 percent or more of the debris at a City-approved recycler, the City will return all of the deposit; if a lesser percentage is recycled, a lesser amount of the deposit will be returned.
The need for such an ordinance goes back to 1989, when the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 939, requiring local jurisdictions to recycle 50 percent of their waste by 2000 or incur a $10,000 per day fine. The bill required the County to form a waste-management task force. The task force had to approve any plan that the City came up with before it was adopted. Richard Anthony has been on the task force’s citizens’ advisory committee for ten years. “In San Diego, [the task force] created a citizens’ advisory committee and a technical advisory committee,” he explains. “The technical advisory committee are the recycling coordinators or the assignees from the various city managers’ offices, and the citizens’ advisory committee are the environmental groups, the haulers, and the landfill companies.”
The City, the task force, and the advisory committees worked hard to reach the 50 percent recycling rate. In 2000, San Diego was at 45 percent, and the State granted the City an extension in order to avoid the $10,000-per-day fine. It took nearly four more years to reach the 50 percent mark, but in 2004, a 52 percent recycling rate was achieved. However, another unresolved issue originated from AB 939.
Part of AB 939 required the City to have a ten-year capacity in its landfill, and every three years the City was required to show the State documentation of that capacity. The City knew that Miramar Landfill was almost full and proposed a new landfill at Gregory Canyon. “We’re going, ‘No, no new landfills,’ ” says Anthony. “So we had to ask the State what needed to be done to avoid getting a new landfill. They said that in order to avoid it, 75 percent of the waste needed to be recycled. So we looked at the pie chart, and we saw that one-third of all that’s going into the landfill is construction and demolition debris, and it’s a problem, and these developers should take some responsibility.”
The advisory committee worked on an ordinance for construction and demolition waste. In 2005, the city council approved the ordinance, which included plans to build a construction-waste recycling facility at the Miramar Landfill. The facility was expected to divert nearly 290,000 tons of construction waste each year. Because of a lack of funding, the project never got under way.
“The City had rules,” Anthony says. Recycling “couldn’t be more expensive than dumping mixed trash. Well, okay, sorry, it couldn’t go through then. So EDCO decided this was a big issue and decided to build the facility.”
After EDCO’s plant was built, the City initially ignored pleas from the company to raise the gate fees at Miramar. South had expected quicker action from the City, but he’s happy with the recent fee increase and deposit requirement. “The combination of the two is pretty significant and will add to the life of Miramar and add to the amount of reusable products leaving our facility.”
Not everyone is as happy. Zane Williams, of Big Zane’s Hauling, says the price increase puts more of a strain on a business already stretched by soaring gas prices. Williams has hauled stuff for over 12 years. He drives all across the county in his longbed pickup truck, collecting construction waste and other debris and taking it to the dump. He uses both Miramar and EDCO’s plant, depending on the part of the county he’s in. The fee increase at Miramar has forced him to raise his prices. “It’s killing us,” he says. “You know, we are trying to make an honest living, and for the City to raise prices, it just makes it hard on us. Me, honestly, I’ve had to show my customers the price sheet from the dump just to show them why my prices are what they are. And with all these foreclosures, there’s constant demolition and remodeling going on. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You know, I see a grim future, because not everyone’s going to continue taking stuff to the dump, and who knows what they’ll do with it.”
Other haulers and demolition companies have taken the initiative with recycling. Dan Cannon, president of Dirt Cheap Demolition, encourages his crews to set aside salvageable material. According to Cannon, some days he saves nearly two tons. “We try and separate lumber, sinks, toilets, and cabinetry from going into the regular trash,” Cannon says. “We keep the reusable stuff for later use, and we’ve actually created a nonprofit that takes some of the stuff to poor neighborhoods in Tijuana. Every day when we do work, we salvage stuff. Why would I pay by the pound to throw something perfectly good out? It doesn’t make sense to me. Plus, most owners like to see us save most of the stuff, so it works out for both of us.”
Cannon’s company is one of the few that have been faithful customers of EDCO’s recycling plant since it opened. “What we take to EDCO is truly trash, like small scrap pieces of wood and broken drywall,” Cannon says. “We take any bricks and concrete to the recycler as well.”
Cannon believes that one way the City could divert construction and demolition waste from Miramar would be to have a salvage pile at the landfill. “One of the problems with a government-run landfill is they don’t allow for scavenging,” he says. “There are all kinds of construction materials that people throw out that are still good.”
Contractors aren’t the only ones being proactive. On the same day the City of San Diego adjusted the price for demolition-waste dumping, the City of Chula Vista adopted a seven-measure plan that mandated use of recycled and renewable construction materials, as well as the use of alternative energy sources. The plan urged residents and businesses to replace their lawns with rocks or shrubs and encouraged businesses and homeowners to participate in a solar-power energy program. Chula Vista is the only city south of Los Angeles to adopt these “green” building regulations.
Leo Miras, policy advocate for the Environmental Health Coalition, the group that developed the plan for Chula Vista, explains some of the general reasons the City of San Diego is slow to take the initiative on environmental policies. “San Diego tends to not be the most progressive, in terms of environmental policies,” he says. “I think it’s due to a variety of issues. We are all especially sensitive to the energy issue, and we’ve lost some focus from using alternative sources. Also, we are so dependent on the housing market, and there is a worry that any increase in requirements will hurt the developers and hurt the housing market even more so than it already is.”
EDCO’s South commends the City of San Diego for its recent price adjustment at Miramar: already more construction waste is being diverted from the landfill.
But Anthony of the citizens’ advisory committee says the City needs to stay committed. “We don’t need more ordinances,” he says. “We need enforcement. We need public education and implementation. We need to let people know that these are the rules and enforce them.”