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Paving the Way for Incentivized, Ethical Waste Collection

Jenelle Shapiro, Sustainability Director, Webcor
Jenelle Shapiro, Sustainability Director, Webcor

Jenelle Shapiro, Sustainability Director, Webcor

Annually, the US generates two times more Construction & Demolition (C&D) debris than it does municipal solid waste (Source: EPA). Despite this, most local jurisdictions focus their communications, legislation, and enforcement efforts on debris from households. The infrastructure is not set up to incentivize and support ethical and transparent waste collection and diversion in most parts of the country. That is where we experts in the Northern California Bay Area region are trying to start a transformation.

My waste journey started with a few casual conversations among superintendents about eliminating water bottles at the jobsite in 2018. If it were possible to do so in an office environment, why couldn’t we use the same behavioral change and incentive-based methodologies out in the field? Why couldn’t we tackle this hugely wasteful problem and be one of the earliest general contractors to act against plastics? Fast-forward three years, and we are still tackling that problem. We are taking lessons learned along the way to continuously improve implementation and eventually report on our success back here.

That challenge, which ultimately led to Webcor’s co-founding of the Bay Area Sustainable Construction Leaders, highlighted our industry’s lack of familiarity with what happens to our C&D waste once it leaves our jobsites.  Historically, we would request monthly waste logs that showed we were “meeting our client and city-mandated goals.” We did not dive beyond the surface to understand how we were meeting those diversion goals and confirm that those materials were truly recycled. In general, many of the local construction and demolition debris haulers seemed to provide minimal reporting transparency or third-party verification, so we started asking questions and poking holes to better understand the state of construction waste.

 At Webcor, we recognize the value of reducing construction waste generation overall and reporting transparently to determine where concerted efforts for waste diversion need to be focused 

Around the same time, we started a 40 + story Tenant Improvement in downtown San Francisco and made the bold decision with our client and operations teams to report authentic and transparent waste values, even if it meant we would lose LEED points or that we would not meet the intended corporate-set waste diversion rate reporting standards our client desired. We collectively decided we wanted the project to report true values that reflect the state of materials recycling feasibility within the industry. We partnered with an RCI-certified (Recycling Certification Institute) facility that verified accurate reporting of recycled material streams and employed measures to source separate material streams to reduce contamination of recyclable materials.

We discovered that the real makeup of recyclable materials coming from our jobsites was much lower than what other non-RCI-certified waste haulers had reported for other projects. This presented a conflict of interest because, without in-depth knowledge of the waste marketplace, other owners or contractors would lean toward these facilities and haulers since they would provide higher, unvalidated diversion rates and support diversion goals. This challenge illuminates a critical issue: Current infrastructure, culture, and policies favor unverified and potentially inaccurate waste diversion reporting to meet high diversion goals instead of supporting transparency and concerted efforts to tackle waste diversion challenges to discover end-of-life opportunities.

At Webcor, we recognize the value of reducing construction waste generation overall and reporting transparently to determine where concerted efforts for waste diversion need to be focused. Webcor is not alone in this; the city of San Francisco now mandates that all construction waste leaving projects in the city’s jurisdiction be RCI-certified. LEED’s latest v4.1 addendum recently rewrote the second point of the Construction Waste Diversion credit. Now, it is achievable only if less than 10lb/sf has been generated onsite. Previously, a project earned credit if it hit a minimum diversion rate of 75%. 

As part of Webcor’s Corporate Social Responsibility framework, we have committed to restructuring our waste management approach for optimized landfill diversion and transparency with a two-pronged approach:

1) Reduce total waste generated on jobsites annually by 2% (unit: total waste/sf)

2) Utilize RCI facilities for mixed construction and demolition debris for 50% of total annual waste by 2025.

We hope our AEC colleagues will help support these audacious goals and commit to more reporting transparency. Doing so will help shift our industry to authentically account for the scale of debris generated from our jobs and help keep construction waste out of our landfills.

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