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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.

But there’s another problem, one that doesn’t just boil down to a problem of geography: How does anyone know builders really follow the LEED checklist?

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.”

* * *

The sorting line at Broad Run.
There is money to be made in recycling, if you actually sell all the material you separate out, along with charging “tipping fees” on the front end.

Five years ago, Kevin Herb saw the LEED wave coming, and invested $12 million in a state-of-the-art recycling facility called Broad Run in Manassas, Va. Enclosed in a massive warehouse, it looks like a giant Rube Goldberg machine. Raw construction waste is dumped in one end, gets filtered through shakers, blowers, magnets, and screens, and spits out in neat piles of rock, cardboard, wood, paper, and metal. The stuff that’s totally unrecyclable—about 23 percent—goes to an incinerator, where it’s burned for electricity.

Business has been reasonably good, Herb says, especially since he worked out a contract with Waste Management, which nine months ago started collecting waste from LEED projects in D.C. at its transfer station on Queens Chapel Road NE. Trucks come in from construction sites and dump their trash, which is then reloaded onto trailers that head out to Broad Run. But he’s only doing about 360 tons per month out of the 1,500 tons he’s permitted.

Some of Herb’s competitors aren’t quite as high tech.

Around the corner from Waste Management’s transfer station is Rodgers Brothers, which separates material into piles outside, and has some screens and magnets inside a large brick warehouse. The 40-year-old outfit is a minority-owned certified business enterprise, which helps general contractors on public projects that have to work with small and local businesses. One client is Clark Construction, the region’s biggest contractor, which is working on St. Elizabeths and CityCenterDC, and refused to answer questions about their recycling practices.

George Rodgers, the plant’s owner, says he’s lost most of his LEED business to the Waste Management transfer station, because he can’t get the kind of recycling rates developers want. But he also doubts that sophisticated operations can recycle 100 percent of waste that comes from construction sites if it’s all mixed up to begin with. “We never claimed that, and never will claim it,” Rodgers says. “The new guys, they need to build their customers, they’re pursuing, and they’re giving them what they want. They’re giving reports saying 80 or 100 percent, but it’s just not possible.”

Then there’s Lorton Landfill, now a tall mound of compacted trash, which has been handling LEED waste alongside regular garbage since 2007. Trucks from LEED jobs are directed up to the top of one mound, where a handful of workers pick over a pile of trash in the whipping wind, dragging out pieces of metal and cardboard with the help of an excavator. What doesn’t get put in the few visible bins of recyclables gets dumped in the landfill, just a few yards away. On the way out, the truck driver picks up a ticket certifying that his load got properly recycled, which he’ll pass on to the contractor, who uses it as part of the LEED application.

They don’t care much about what’s in your load, though. I rode in on a truck that had 100 percent post-separation garbage. The driver told a gatekeeper it was metal and cardboard, and on the way out, was given a ticket saying 75 percent had been recycled.

Mark Shaener, who manages the recycling program for Lorton’s parent company ESI Waste, says this is all on the up-and-up: The manual system allows trash to be processed in batches, while a big machine like the one at Broad Run could break, leading to potentially days of down time.

But industry experts say it’s pretty difficult to achieve a 75 percent recycling rate with a manual system. “I’ve never see nor heard anywhere in the country that’s able to do that,” says Turley (while refraining from calling out Lorton, which just became a member of the CMRA). “If they manage to attain that, I’ll congratulate them on being unique.”

Waste Management, a national firm that takes its environmental reputation very seriously, doesn’t take any of its waste to manual sort facilities. I asked sales manager Christopher Pilzer whether workers aided by a few construction vehicles could possibly get the rates Lorton claims. “I think they’d be very tired,” he replies diplomatically.

* * *

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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