Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance Will Contribute to Cook County's Zero Waste Goal

A sink and counter are being removed as a part of the deconstruction process so they can be reused in another project. (photo by Carlyn So)

Earlier this year, the Cook County Board approved an ambitious zero waste goal in the Solid Waste Plan Update.  The Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance that was passed July 24th gets us one step closer to attaining that goal.

A key recommendation of the solid waste plan was to address construction and demolition (C&D) debris, the largest single category of waste in Cook County.  The USEPA has found that nationally, 40% of what ends up in our landfills is building waste. This ordinance (which goes into effect on November 21, 2012) requires that all demolition projects in suburban and unincorporated Cook County start to decrease what they are sending to the landfills by recycling and reusing demolition debris.  Specifically, the ordinance requires demolition contractors to recycle 70% by weight of debris for all demolition projects (excluding sheds and garages) and that residential properties also demonstrate 5% by weight is being diverted for reuse.

It’s worth noting that most contractors already do salvage a significant percentage of materials from demolition sites and although the City of Chicago has been requiring recycling of materials for a number of years now, the reuse requirement is ground breaking in the region. By reusing materials we reduce the demand for new products made from virgin materials, and save 95% of the “stored energy” that already went into manufacturing the product.

Ken Ortiz, Midwest Regional Manager of the ReUse People of America testified at the Cook County Board’s Environmental Control Committee Meeting, where the ordinance was being debated.  He explained how his company routinely achieves over 85% diversion of materials from every one of their residential deconstruction sites (learn more about deconstruction here)

"Half the total weight of a typical residential project is in the ground and is comprised of concrete, stone or brick. This is always recycled and used for base rock. The other half, above-ground, consists of fixtures such as doors, windows, electric, plumbing, cabinets, appliances, carpeting and structural components such as siding, lumber, bricks and, in some cases, roofing material goes to reuse, recycling and disposal. Of this second half we can always harvest a minimum of 50% for reuse – or 25% of the total weight. The balance, or the last 25%, gets recycled and/or landfilled. Reuse can easily divert half of everything above ground."

By instituting the Demolition Debris Diversion Ordinance, the Department of Environmental Control hopes to make Mr. Ortiz’s successful diversion rate the norm for contractors across the County.

The benefits of C&D diversion go beyond the positive environmental impacts.  It also creates jobs, stabilizes local economies, and creates a supply stream for manufacturing, as well as materials for construction, renovation and infrastructure building. Diverting 5% from only about 30 houses could support at least one new retail center, with 3-5 jobs, and 25-30 full-time deconstruction workers.

Elise Zelechowski, Executive Director of the ReBuilding Exchange, one of the County’s existing retail centers, also testified at the committee hearing.  She talked about the success her organization has had in getting deconstructed materials to market, “We’ve experience significant market growth in just 4 years.  We serve over 20,000 customers a year, in fact, and they range from contractors, to multi-family building owners, to homeowners on a budget.”

We know that greater public awareness will make reuse become more mainstream, as building owners learn of options.  The Department of Environmental Control will be working with these partners and others over the next few months to educate contractors and building owners about the requirements of the new ordinance along with the many benefits.