Booming development in Minneapolis and across the Twin Cities has come with a largely hidden price: tons of demolition and construction waste being sent to landfills.

State pollution regulators estimate that construction sites in Minnesota generate roughly the same amount of landfill material as traditional municipal waste does every year. A burgeoning industry has sprung up in recent years to recycle or resell that debris, but local policymakers are now eyeing regulations to help capture even more of it.

“We can compost our little our hearts out, but it’s not going to equate to the dumpster on the street,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents a southwest Minneapolis ward where 35 homes were torn down this year — many of them sent to landfills.

Trucks hauling loads of concrete, cardboard, bricks, wood and insulation are arriving constantly at north Minneapolis’ Atomic Recycling, one of a handful of local companies that will sort through the construction waste for recyclables.

“I don’t think anyone’s been this busy,” said vice president Brian Pieti, beside a mountain of debris in the company’s 45,000-square-foot hangar.

As part of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ Zero Waste initiative, Minneapolis is examining rules from other cities to encourage or require recycling of construction and demolition waste. Chicago, for example, requires contractors to recycle 50 percent of all recyclable waste, such as concrete, drywall, shingles, plumbing fixtures and glass. Cook County set it at 70 percent in the surrounding suburbs and applied it to more property types.

The issue is only growing more prominent as the economy improves, apartments rise and people remodel or replace their homes.

“If you look around Minneapolis … you know this is going to be a growing piece of our waste picture going forward,” said Stephanie Zawistowski, Hodges’ sustainability policy aide.

While more is being sent to the landfill during the latest construction uptick, Paul Kroening, supervising environmentalist at Hennepin County, estimates it is less than prerecession levels because of improved recovery operations.

The county plans to study the capacity of the recovery market this fall to determine what goals are feasible. “If we were to set a goal of 70 percent recovery of waste, is that reasonable, can the market support that?” Kroening asked.

Minneapolis is embarking on a pilot project with Better Futures Minnesota, a nonprofit firm that pays ex-offenders to meticulously deconstruct houses and salvage materials instead of sending the debris to landfills or sending commingled loads to recycling facilities. Standing beside piles of metal and shingles at a Shoreview rambler being deconstructed for Ramsey County one recent afternoon, Better Futures consultant Tim Roman said their process is lengthy — about two weeks — but worthwhile.

“Everybody that we talk to — contractors on to everyone — is always [saying], ‘Yeah, it’s such a shame that we throw all this crap in the landfill,’ ” Roman said. “Everybody knows it’s a shame.”

Recovering materials can be hindered by timing constraints, particularly since construction labor and equipment are in high demand.

“Once people want to do the demo, they want to do it right now and they want it on their time schedule,” said Wayne Gjerde, with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Gjerde said more than 1.7 million tons of construction and demolition waste in Minnesota ends up in landfills every year, though it’s unclear how much is generated by large projects compared with private homeowners.

The waste is generated both from the construction of new buildings — such as excess drywall and wooden pallets — as well as from demolition. But not all of it can be recycled. “At the end of the day, the reality is somebody has to find a way to make a dollar off it,” said Pieti of Atomic Recycling.

New uses for materials are frequently developed. Unpainted wood can be turned into mulch or animal bedding. New drywall can also be transformed into animal bedding or a pH balancing additive for soil. Shingles can be stripped of their asphalt and used to build new roads. Concrete is crushed and used as a base for roads. Some of the markets, such as those for shingles, are becoming saturated, however.

Pieti said about 50 percent of a typical home’s weight can be recycled, largely because of its concrete foundation. Larger projects vary by the type of material, such as the type of brick that was used. Ryan Cos. managed to recycle 36 percent of the total tonnage of a former Star Tribune building in Downtown East earlier this year, all of it from concrete and steel.

Intact doors and cabinets may end up at reuse facilities such as Bauer Brothers Salvage in north Minneapolis. Better Futures is working with the University of Minnesota to develop a program to turn wood pieces into tables or other products. “The highest value you get is from repurposing materials,” said Thomas Adams, CEO of Better Futures. “That is when you take the wood out of the wall or the flooring and you turn it into a table. Or you turn it into a dresser.”

But deconstruction remains a rare practice compared with demolition; Better Futures is one of the only companies of its kind in the state. While it is more expensive up-front to deconstruct, Adams said it ends up being cheaper for companies because the materials they donate to Better Futures become a tax write-off.

Jason Haus, CEO of Dem-Con Cos., a recycling facility and landfill in Shakopee, said that larger projects tend to do a better job recycling than smaller residential ones because of space constraints and some materials that can’t be reused in older homes. Haus said demolition contractors efficiently pick out usable materials because they can make money from them.

“Recycling on the demolition side actually plays a large role in the pricing that they put out in the marketplace,” Haus said.

He said the fact that the Twin Cities have five recycling facilities for this type of waste without any mandates in place is “unheard of” elsewhere in the country.

“It’s being driven more by marketplace than by regulation,” Haus said. “And I think that’s a solid, sustainable way for this to continue down the road.”


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