Debris Recycling - Transforming Disasters Into Opportunities

‚ÄúLandfilling‚ÄĚ ‚Äď i.e., using disaster debris as landfill in the aftermath of an incident that creates a significant amount of debris ‚Äď may be the most viable option for some communities, but an increasing number of them are determining that, with land availability and cost at a premium, it just does not make good economic sense to use landfill space as a permanent depository, more or less, for disaster debris. This is especially true when it is realized that there are many alternative uses for various types of debris that are available to most communities.

Following a debris-generating event, many types of debris are encountered, both from the event itself (which directly deposits debris onto the public right of way) and from the public (when private citizens bring the debris to the right of way for later removal). Such debris might include typical vegetative debris (woody), construction and demolition (C&D) debris, white goods, household goods, hazardous household waste (HHW) and toxic materials, electronic waste (E-waste), and putrescent debris (animal carcasses, for example).  Markets can be found for many of these types of debris that not only provide a community with an alternative to landfilling the debris but also create a possible new stream of future revenues.

Under the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Public Assistance (PA) Program for Debris Management, a community that elects to recycle disaster debris is required to report the amount of the proceeds received through recycling, and those proceeds are then used by FEMA to offset the community’s federal assistance reimbursement.  However, the agency is now encouraging communities to seriously consider recycling disaster debris, and one of the carrots being dangled is the possibility for the applicant community to retain the recycling proceeds with no reduction in its reimbursement payment.

A Bonus, a Loophole, a Time Limit

The only current way to receive this bonus is for an applicant community to have a FEMA-approved Debris Management Plan that includes a recycling component. Here it should be noted that, although a recycling component is a requirement for approval of the plan, FEMA does not specify the extent of the program ‚Äď only that an applicant community take the steps needed to establish some type of recycling effort.¬† The PA Pilot Program for Debris Management is due to expire at the end of this year, however ‚Äď and what new form it might then take in relation to the recycling requirement and other program provisions has not yet been determined.

There are many excellent sources available for identifying the various possible uses of recycled disaster debris; a quick search of the Internet, for example, yields a plethora of options, including the following possibilities for recycling the types of debris indicated:

  • Vegetative Woody:¬†horticultural mulches; the remanufacture of wood chips into engineered wood; the use of wood fuels in co-generation plants and/or industrial boilers; the use of wood chips as a bulking agent in biosolids, compost, and animal bedding; and the making of planks and other dimensional lumber sawed from whole trees.
  • Construction and Demolition (C&D):¬†crushed concrete, brick, or asphalt used as a sub-base for roads; crushed concrete and brick used in drainage applications; concrete, block, masonry, and other clean debris used as borrow pit fill; reusable building supplies such as lumber and whole bricks and blocks; and aluminum, tin, and other scrap metal sold to dealers.
  • White Goods:¬†possible market for metal casing as scrap; the re-use of some components as repair parts; the used resale market for rubber-coated shelves, baking racks, etc.; and the recovery of refrigerants (i.e., Freon or chlorofluorocarbons).
  • Household Goods:¬†cardboard and paper products; and household metals and plastics.
  • Electronic Waste (E-waste):¬†computers and monitors resold or used as parts; cables resold or sold as scrap; and processed and/or donated to organizations.
  • Putrescent (animal carcasses):¬†compost.
  • Other:¬†recovered screened material (RSM) for various approved uses; and the use of reclaimed dirt as landfill cover or for agricultural purposes.

Winds, Wet Events, and Putrescent Waste

The type of debris stream available for recycling also will be dependent to at least some extent upon the type of disaster experienced.¬† Wind ‚Äúevents‚ÄĚ (tornadoes, for example) and earthquakes yield significant amounts of acceptable types of recyclable debris, whereas ‚Äúwet‚ÄĚ events ‚Äď e.g., typhoons and hurricanes ‚Äď yield significantly less acceptable types and quantities.¬† In all cases, however, local, state, and federal laws must be strictly followed when and where applicable to such debris streams as Freon recovery, the disposition of mercury and/or lead from computers, hazardous materials, putrescent waste, and the contaminated residue generated by a ‚Äúreduction‚ÄĚ operation (grinding or burning).¬† Even the soil within a temporary debris storage and reduction (TDSR) site can be considered for recycling if proper methods of safeguarding against contamination have been put in place and maintained during operations.

It should be obvious that plans and proposals to recycle in the aftermath of a debris-generating event should be developed and considered prior to a disaster, if only because this approach gives the community the best opportunity to realize the greatest benefits. Those opportunities can later be investigated more thoroughly so that: (a) contractual relationships can be agreed to by the community for specific types of recyclable debris; and (b) the best means of segregating and collecting the recyclable debris from other types of debris also can be determined. Clear and concise procedures for tracking the recyclable debris, and for reporting on its final disposal, should be established and maintained as well.

FEMA recognizes not only the importance of recycling disaster debris but also the societal benefits that can result, and for that reason is attempting to make a community‚Äôs involved efforts more palatable both to local decision makers and to the public at large.¬† Depending on the extent of those efforts, the monetary rewards can be significant to the community in general ‚Äď and beneficial to American society as a whole.

Kirby McCrary

Kirby McCrary is president of Disaster Recovery Resources Inc., headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a registered professional engineer in both North Carolina and Florida. He was heavily involved in debris-management operations in Florida during the 2004-2006 hurricane seasons and, following Hurricane Wilma, oversaw all debris-removal and monitoring activities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties on behalf of the Florida Department of Transportation.

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