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Bay Area Construction Waste COVID-19 Update

Following up on the State of the Construction Waste Industry letter published July 22, 2020 (www.bayareascl.org), the Bay Area Sustainable Construction Leaders (BASCL) reached out to local waste management companies to assess impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to their operations.


Facilities that handle commercial and residential waste reported limited overall change to their operations and quantity of material processed. The sudden stoppage of construction and commercial activity in March 2020 when initial shelter-in-place orders were given by the six central Bay Area counties caused a steep drop-off in volume of waste processed in regional materials recovery facilities (MRF’s) Bay Area-wide. Major waste haulers in San Francisco, East Bay and South Bay regions reported volumes approaching more normal levels around the beginning of May and into June, after construction was exempted from the modified shelter-in-place ordinances. Both haulers that handle residential waste noted a slight decrease in overall materials handled, possibly due to less residential self-hauling activity. One processor in the South Bay mentioned an increase in volume compared to the same time last year due to more non-recyclable packaging and contamination of recyclable material – speculated to indicate a higher number of tenant improvement’s in the area.


Regarding sorting capabilities and diversion rates - no facilities reported changes to their business nor new limitations; however, some waste services reported difficulties keeping their sorting work force at consistent levels at times due to COVID-19. This issue has affected some facilities’ abilities to sort accurately in the short term. Facilities reinforced they continue to make worker safety a priority as we all adapt to the ongoing pandemic. Source separation was noted to be the best way to divert potentially recyclable material from the landfill. While salvage markets are not yet robust for materials like drywall and wood (biomass) – concrete and asphalt continue to be heavily reused. One waste facility manager cited the recent pilot project by CalTrans testing asphalt paving mixes with recycled plastic content as a positive development that will help grow demand for recycled materials. Unfortunately, overseas markets for recycled plastic and cardboard continue to be challenging. Entire shipments of containers of recycled material can be rejected if random sampling indicates unacceptable contamination levels.


When asked about any concerns regarding handling of hazardous COVID-related Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and single use items, multiple waste processors noted that bagging in clear bags and labeling contaminated PPE is important in alerting sorting facilities to handle the waste safely. Potentially contaminated PPE is typically left unsorted and allowed to fall off the end of the conveyor line to head to the landfill; therefore, single use PPE items should not be tossed loose into commingled debris boxes. No facility reported a significant increase in waste due to single use PPE alone, however one noted a higher percentage of single use plastic water bottles (possibly due to shared water dispensers being determined unsafe by local public health officials & guidelines.) Most waste facility managers remained optimistic that diversion rates would not decrease due to any lingering COVID-19 impacts or contraction in the economy.


All facilities who provided input are (or are about to be) Recycling Certification Institute (RCI) certified. Shelter-in-place ordinances and reduction of nonessential travel have impacted the ability of local governments and 3rd party agencies to audit waste material recovery facilities. This restriction required an innovative approach to inspecting waste facilities and performing receipt mass balance checks. The San Francisco Department of the Environment has been completing virtual inspections using mobile phones and video streaming applications. While this method is not ideal, it is necessary to continue auditing MRF’s to ensure compliance with RCI and municipal requirements. Another pandemic impact cited by the SF DoE is continued delays from backlog of permit reviews and issuance in the city Department of Building Inspection. The department recently sent out a letter addressing the shortfalls in their previous electronic reservation system, proposing solutions to resolve backlog and wait times (https://sfdbi.org/letter-customers).


Hopefully municipalities continue to adapt to virtual workflows while the construction industry rises to the challenges provided by our current global health crisis. Fortunately, it appears there ultimately were minimal impacts to MRF’s and overall landfill diversion due to the pandemic fallout. The Bay Area Sustainable Construction Leaders group is appreciative to those who provided input for this effort and will continue to track changes in the region’s construction & demolition waste infrastructure.


About BASCL

The Bay Area Sustainable Construction Leaders’ mission is to use the collective power of Bay Area general contractors to catalyze action towards net-zero-impact construction and inspire industry peers to commit to market transformation for a thriving and sustainable future. BASCL uses combined knowledge, resources, experience and relationships to move the Bay Area Construction industry away from unsustainable practices and to accelerate market transformation toward positive solutions.

Learn more at http://www.bayareascl.org/.


About the Author

Jorel Allegro | DPR Construction

945 Front Street, San Francisco, CA. 94111

We Exist to Build Great Things.®

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At DPR we are committed to creating a more sustainable work and built environment. We will revolutionize how we operate in our offices, build on our jobsites, travel to our destinations, and guide our partners. With the right resources we can continue to encourage our culture of changing the world and respecting the individual by creating a healthier future for all. ​

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