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Last month, the District got one of those rankings that it knows is meaningless but celebrates anyway: It has more building square feet per capita certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as enviro-friendly than any state in the nation. Win!
It’s meaningless in part because D.C. is a city and can’t realistically be compared to bigger states, with rural and urban areas and everything in between. Still, D.C. does have one of the strongest green building laws in the country. Starting in 2012, all new private buildings are required to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
Some of what goes into a rating is self-evident, like how many bike parking spaces a building has, and whether there are low-flow toilets and a green roof. Other stuff is much harder to track.
Take trash. Under the 100-point LEED system, projects get one point for diverting 50 percent of their construction debris from a landfill, and two points for recycling 75 percent of it. The vast majority of projects apply for at least one point, and virtually every building that applies gets the credit. But unlike low-flow toilets, there’s no way of telling where the remains of buildings actually go: Contractors simply report that the debris got recycled, and USGBC never checks it out.
If they did, they’d probably find that much more of it simply gets dumped in the ground than contractors claim.
Bill Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association, says “sham recycling” is a problem all over the country—but that it’s particularly acute in the Washington area, in part because demand for LEED-quality recycling is so high, and traditional landfills know they can say they do it without fear of inspection.
“Most of the legitimate recyclers are [association] members, and so they’re complaining, ‘I know there’s no way that guy down the street can be doing that recycling rate, he is just claiming that rate so that his customers can get the LEED point,’” Turley says. “This may come as a surprise to you, but there are people in the waste industry who will lie.”
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Local governments keep pretty good track of the garbage that comes from homes and businesses, since there aren’t many haulers, and a lot goes to public facilities. But construction waste is much harder to track, because the industry is very regional and very fragmented: Small haulers take waste from different sites to different disposal facilities in Maryland, Virginia, and the District. What information the government collects is self-reported; in the District, it’s even kept confidential.
So it’s up to contractors to make sure their waste is going where it’s supposed to. Ideally, they separate it on site, since even mechanized plants have a hard time recycling commingled trash—but that takes effort, training, and space. A lot of contractors have bigger things to worry about, and simply take the tickets their haulers hand over.
“Once it leaves the job site, there’s not many companies that are going to go chase the trash,” says Matt Krstolic, a project manager with Hensel Phelps, which is building the massive Marriott Marquis at 9th and Massachusetts Streets NW. “What’s the standard on that? Who’s to say how much is getting flubbed and thrown out? I’m not sure.”
Ken Mogul, who owns a facility similar to Broad Run in Chester, Va., says even if contractors do visit the disposal facilities, without a real audit, it’s not always clear who’s up to the job and who’s not. “You’re now asking folks who are trying to do the right thing, they wouldn’t know necessarily how to make that decision,” he says. “You’re asking people to be their own experts.”
It’s no wonder that recyclers who’ve made substantial investments are complaining about those that haven’t: The construction industry is still anemic these days, and there’s only so much trash to go around. So lately, they’ve been pushing for legislation that would require trash on LEED projects to go only to certified facilities, which has been done in green-happy places like Seattle and San Jose, Calif. Councilmember Mary Cheh’s staff is mulling over the idea, while getting the Department of Public Works to do an audit that would tell us what’s going where.
But why hasn’t the U.S. Green Building Council set up some form of certification, like the one it’s got for sustainably harvested wood? When I first ask a USGBC representative about this, she sends me to Avi Golen, a recycler in Philadelphia who serves on the technical committee that oversees waste management standards. Golen is also upset about the amount of LEED waste that goes to landfills—which cuts into his bottom line—and says the Green Building Council’s been reluctant to take action.
“There’s no question they’re aware of it, but from a policing standpoint, I just don’t know if that’s the business they want to be in,” he says. “And it’s a problem not only in the waste disposal part of LEED. It’s rampant.”
When I finally talk to Brandon Owens, the USGBC’s vice president for LEED technical development, he explains that as the certification system has expanded and gone mainstream—it operates in 91 countries now—it’s become more difficult to ensure accountability. Plus, making it any more comprehensive could add to the cost of getting a building certified.
But Owens talks to people in the industry too, and is under no illusions about what’s going on. “It’s nice to believe that everybody’s doing the right thing,” he says. “It’s also incredibly naïve to do that.”
Ideally, the garbage problem will work itself out: Landfills are increasingly hard to find, and recycling gets more profitable as markets for reconstituted stuff develop. Until the traditional trash operations go out of business or invest in better equipment, though, D.C. should make sure that its old buildings are getting made into new ones, rather than simply patting itself on the back.
Photo by Lydia DePillis
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