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01.16.2013
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Chicago's Cook County enacts the Midwest's first ordinance to cut construction waste.
Moosicorn / Flicke

Cook County last month took a big step toward the ambitious zero-waste goal it outlined earlier this year. Leapfrogging Chicago’s standards, Cook County enacted the Midwest’s first demolition debris ordinance that requires reuse. At least 70 percent of construction and demolition debris must be recycled, and an additional 5 percent must be reused on residential structures.

This law, which took effect November 21, affects some 2.5 million residents across 30 townships in suburban Cook County. While the City of Chicago mandates that 50 percent of debris be recycled—a 2007 ordinance, which, government officials note, contractors now easily exceed—building debris makes up a staggering 40 percent of landfill material nationwide.

“We’re looking not just at trying to keep materials out of the landfill, but at the fact that a lot of the stuff that goes into a landfill can be valuable,” said Deborah Stone, director at Cook County Department of Environmental Control. She cited the reuse of lumber and finished components as two vital emerging markets in the construction industry.

Many large, sophisticated demolition contractors have already moved toward reuse.

Reaching these smaller contractors, said Bryant Williams, Cook County’s manager of engineering services noted, demands a hands-on effort. Education will be an important part of the ordinance’s success. Outreach includes visiting contractors and working with project managers, and discussing available recycling facilities. An online waste tracking system also helps contractors find the facilities that best meet their needs.

“Even for people who really believe in recycling,” Elise Zelechowski, a managing director at environmental nonprofit Delta Institute said, “it’s hard to change habits.”

In emergencies, two waivers on the ordinance allow contractors to bypass the recycling and reuse requirements.

Additionally, small structures such as sheds are exempt from the law.

Notably, the ordinance applies to Cook County’s own construction and demolition projects. “We’ll have to put our money where our mouth is,” Stone said. The county ran pilot programs in 2011 to train contractors, who deconstructed six suburban houses. “We were able to reuse between 4 and 18 percent of the material,” Stone said. “We were able to recycle or reuse all but about 4 percent.”

But not every contractor believes the new regulations will be a boon to business. During hearings, representatives of the Association of Subcontractors and Affiliates (ASA Chicago) cited labor and permitting costs as obstacles. “We worked with the association before the hearing,” Stone said in response, adding that that cooperative spirit resulted in the adjustment downward of country fees. “We continue to work with their members as well.”

“Ultimately, I’d like to think that we wouldn’t need an ordinance—but I think we do, to kick it off,” Stone said. “Because it’s a permit requirement, every contractor on every structure and every owner that’s demolishing a building in suburban Cook County is going to learn about [recycling and reuse’s] potential—and I think that’s very powerful.”

Madeline Nusser