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Metro tackles construction waste

Sustainable Life • Agency urges builders to reduce, reuse and recyle
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Greg Matsuda, who is in the process of remodeling his home, brings his building scraps and old appliances to Metro’s Central Station sorting facility.

Bryce Jacobson pauses for a moment at the foot of a mini mountain range of garbage. Dump trucks rumble past him, a conveyor belt rattles in the distance and resident feral cats, on the lookout for the rats that frequent the compost pile, duck out of sight.

It's a noisy, chaotic scene at Metro's Central Station, a waste sorting facility located in a gargantuan warehouse on Northwest Front Street, in an industrial neighborhood where aboveground storage tanks line the waterfront.

Scanning the peaks of refuse, Jacobson, a senior planner for Metro regional government, spots a pile of plywood parked next to a dozen black garbage bags of painted wood siding.

He guesses the plywood could be resold for $5 or $10 a sheet.

But the plywood isn't in the salvage pile.

'If I had a Bobcat,' Jacobson says, 'I'd load it over there right now.'

So, the self-proclaimed 'construction nerd' says, the perfectly usable plywood probably will end up with the siding, broken pallets and other waste that gets devoured and spit out as wood chips - or worse, shipped to the landfill.

Throwing more away

Metro's sorting station, which diverts wood, compostable material and metal out of the trash piles, collects 325,000 tons of garbage a year.

A third of its haul - nearly 93,000 tons - is construction debris, of which less than 17 percent gets recycled.

That meager figure might seem at odds with Portland's green reputation. But it dovetails with recent figures suggesting that Oregonians are throwing away more stuff than ever.

On average, every man, woman and child in Oregon tossed out 3,118 pounds of garbage and recycling in 2006 - a 52 percent increase over 1992.

In addition, Metro's recovery rate - that is, the percentage of waste diverted from the landfill by methods such as recycling, composting or burning - fell to 55 percent in 2006, reversing a 15-year trend.

Some of the increase in overall waste can be attributed to inconsistencies in record keeping, but the bulk of it represents a real jump in consumption and waste generation, says David Allaway, waste prevention specialist at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

And trash experts agree that construction and renovation - from condos in the Pearl District to kitchen remodels in North Portland - are key factors in the swelling waste stream.

Allaway says that building materials like wood, scrap metal, roofing and carpets are among the most common items being thrown out these days, in addition to more predictable consumer items such as appliances, electronics, yard debris, plastics, clothes and shoes.

Metro sets goals

Metro is taking aggressive action to amp up recycling in the building sector to meet its goal of a 64 percent recycling rate by 2010. (Two other areas officials believe are ripe for improvement are food scraps and paper.)

Last summer, Metro Council adopted a program that will enforce recycling of construction and demolition debris, which Metro previously has not regulated, with a special emphasis on wood, metal and cardboard.

Starting next January, waste facilities, including landfills, will screen out at least 85 percent of the recyclables before burying the garbage.

For builders, the new rules will be a mixed blessing. 'Every time you separate something, you gotta make an extra trip,' says a contractor unloading a truck at Central Station, as he tosses salvageable materials like cabinets and drawers, pocket doors and a sink into the same pile with ragged rolls of carpet and tiles. Sometimes he hauls reusables to the ReBuilding Center, he says, but it isn't always cost-effective.

About 38 percent of the region's 500,000 tons of construction and demolition waste now goes to either Hillsboro Landfill or Lakeside Reclamation Landfill, both in Washington County.

To comply with the new standard, Hillsboro Landfill, owned by Waste Management Inc., will build an on-site sorting facility.

But Lakeside is near capacity, and spokesman Larry Harvey says it's more likely the landfill part of the operation will close, while continuing to do wood recycling at the site.

Site encourages reuse

Metro also is working to encourage reusing materials rather than simply recycling them. A year ago, it launched BoneyardNW (www.boneyardnw.com) - think Craigslist for lovelorn construction debris.

BoneyardNW is a free Web site designed to help merge the deconstruction and construction worlds, feeding into the area's ever-growing green building and salvage markets.

The plywood Jacobson spotted at Central Station could have been posted on BoneyardNW, but the real goal of the site is to be a source for larger-scale commercial projects.

'We don't want to load it up with residential stuff,' Jacobson says.

Boneyard has logged more than 24,000 unique visitors since it started, but figuring out how many sales have been made is a bit trickier. Last week, the site offered only a smattering of postings: Some chain-link fencing. Thirty toilets. Fifty toilet lids. Cubicles and desks. Salvaged hardwoods.

But that's likely to change soon as this year's building season kicks off, says Shane Endicott, executive director of the ReBuilding Center, which, in addition to its sprawling retail space of salvaged supplies and appliances, also runs a deconstruction business.

That's deconstruction as in taking a house apart. Not demolition, where, in many cases, the best materials are removed - doors, flooring, some fixtures - before the trackhoe topples the rest.

Endicott, who helped start the ReBuilding Center as a volunteer 10 years ago, says demand for recycled building wares is much stronger than it was five years ago.

But that doesn't seem to stop stacks of reusable plywood, doors, cabinets, sinks, and all manner of odds and ends from getting dumped at Central Station, where - absent sharp-eyed nerds patrolling in Bobcats - the construction debris from east-side remodelers and west-side infillers continues to pile up.

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