From her rowhouse at 20th and Montgomery, Yvonne Matthews has watched the neighborhood around her transform for the past 16 years. She saw the drastic redevelopment of her own block a few years ago, spewing construction dust and debris onto her property and leaving trash right outside her door. Now, she’s seeing piles of wood and debris stacking up on lots a few blocks away, turning grassy backyards into makeshift landfills.
“Nothing was being done,” Matthews says of the mess on her street, despite repeated demands for help. “Eventually, we had to clean everything up ourselves.”
New draft legislation, currently in City Council, would require the recycling of 60 percent of construction and demolition debris. While environmental activists cheer the notion of better standards for the handling of such waste, people like Matthews can’t help but wonder whether enforcement of such regulations is even possible in a city where so much construction appears to go unregulated.
Councilman Bobby Henon introduced the bill, which would re-quire contractors to provide the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) with a plan to recycle 35 percent of waste in the law’s first year and 60 percent thereafter. The law would apply to residential buildings of four or more units or nonresidential buildings larger than 4,000 square feet.
“A similar bill was proposed by Councilman [Jim] Kenney and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown [in 2008], but it never made it through committee,” Henon says. “There haven’t been enough outlets for local people to recycle. But five years have passed, and I think it’s the right time to revisit it.”
Construction and demolition debris currently accounts for 20 percent of the city’s waste stream, according to an analysis conducted by the Streets Department in 2010.
Andrew Sharp, outreach coordinator for the environmental advocacy group PennFuture, lobbied for the bill, which would help bring Philly in line with other municipalities that regulate the disposition of such waste. San Francisco currently requires contractors to submit plans to divert 65 percent of demolition debris from landfills via registered transporters to registered processing facilities. In Chicago, contractors whose projects include new residential buildings with four or more units are required to recycle 50 percent of construction and demolition debris. Massachusetts, meanwhile, has statewide regulations mandating that 100 percent of certain materials, such as asphalt pavement, brick, concrete, metal and wood, be diverted from landfills.
Sharp says he hopes Philly’s legislation will be “both enforceable and effective. We hope that this bill will encourage people to stop sending waste into landfills and make them become more aware of how it can be reused.”
Here’s how it would work: Within 30 days of completion of a project, the ordinance says, the contractor must submit documentation consisting of affidavits from the contractor and the waste hauler or recycler, or pay a fine. Without the required documentation, no occupancy permit would be issued. And builders who flout the law would risk having their licenses revoked or being denied building or demolition permits in the future.
That should put the onus on the contractor, not L&I. But Ben Ditzler, a member of the steering committee of RecycleNOW, a campaign run by the Recycling Alliance of Philadelphia, is dubious.
“L&I are already pretty swamped. It would be tough for them to enforce,” he says. Calls to L&I were not returned.
An analysis of construction and demolition activity in North Central Philly released last October by City Controller Alan Butkovitz bears that out. Butkovitz described code enforcement by L&I and other city departments as “inefficient” and “inadequate.” The report describes sites without required posted permits or equipment to contain waste, dust and debris. It also found obvious short-dumping onto nearby lots or debris simply left on the work site after the construction was done.
Jon Wybar, co-owner of Revolution Recovery, a local vanguard in the industry that currently diverts 80 percent of waste it collects from landfills, says the legislation is important if only for its educational value, since “a lot of people don’t know that [construction-waste recycling] exists and that it’s the same cost.”
Indeed, Al Sciubba of Allied Construction feels his options for recycling demolition waste are limited. “If we were to tear down a building, we would first have to contact the trash-disposal company. The disposal company would then send us a dumpster only for concrete, [another for] wood and [a third for] mixed trash. Everything that’s not concrete or wood is sent off into the mixed trash [to landfills].”
Sciubba believes that disposal services should provide more options to recycle waste materials if the new bill is to be enforced properly.
But Wybar says Philly already has the infrastructure to implement the bill without burdening the construction industry, and that many construction sites would already be in compliance if the law took effect today. However, unless waste handlers are better monitored, he adds, the impact might not be as hoped. He says failing to recycle materials as advertised is a “rampant” problem, and “it’s definitely happening here.” And what’s a recycler anyway? “If you’ve got a load that’s got a lot of mixed materials in it and just pull out the metal, you can consider yourself a recycler. Or if you do what we do and comb through every ounce of that load” for a broad range of materials to be recycled or diverted, the same definition applies. Wybar says things are beginning to change for the better, though. Some waste handlers “started out completely shamming the game, and now we’re seeing some of them invest in the facilities” to actually divert more material from landfills. He hopes legislation could help accelerate that shift and keep new refuse transfer stations from opening in Philly.
Given that change — and the shortcomings of site-by-site enforcement in Philly neighborhoods — Ditzler argues that it would make more sense to tackle enforcement at the receiving end. “Instead of contractors hitting certain percentages, it would just be easier to require transfer stations to recycle it,” he says.