Are you reaping the benefits – and profits – of concrete recycling, or are you still hauling concrete waste to the local landfill?
By Shari Held
Concrete recycling is rapidly becoming mainstream, and with good reason.
First, the more we recycle, the less we need to tap into our natural resources. Plus, it reduces the amount of waste being transported to our solid waste landfills. Second, it may not be possible to dump waste concrete at local landfills in the future. For example, New Jersey forbids any recyclable material to be disposed of in its landfills.1 By recycling, you not only get rid of your concrete waste, you might be able to create an additional revenue stream for your business. Here’s how one precaster created a profitable recycling center.
Materializing the plan
In 2010, StructureCast, a custom precast concrete manufacturer located in Bakersfield, Calif., opened a four-acre crushing and screening plant to recycle concrete and washout. Since opening, approximately 10,000 tons of concrete has been recycled every month.
“You can’t retire on it, but you can turn waste into profit,” said Brent Dezember, StructureCast’s president and owner.
Dezember started by talking to other businesses that had branched out and created concrete recycling centers. He wanted to get a feel for the whole process, including the equipment requirements and how profitable it could be. Six months later, StructureCast’s concrete waste recycling center was open for business.
“We just kicked the idea around for a month or two,” he said. “Then it took another three or four months to get all the equipment together and make it happen.”
To successfully pull it off quickly, Dezember had everything lined up prior to committing to the new venture.
First, he already had the extra space on StructureCast’s 25 acres to locate the recycling center. But, the critical component to starting the recycling business was the strong relationships he had forged within the community over the years. Dezember, who began his career in the ready-mix concrete business, ran his plan by operators of three local ready-mix plants.
“I knew the ready-mix operators, and I knew they were having trouble getting rid of their excess materials,” he said.
All three agreed to pay StructureCast to dispose of their waste material. This was crucial to the recycling center’s success because StructureCast generates roughly 5% of the concrete waste material the recycling center processes. That tonnage alone wouldn’t warrant opening a recycling center.
The amount of waste StructureCast hauled to the county dump wasn’t excessive – only one or two 20,000-pound loads every other month. But the company was spending $100 per load in tipping fees, plus transportation time and costs.
“It was just a nuisance,” Dezember said.
Another significant piece of the plan fell into place when Dezember partnered with a local paving company that would purchase the bulk of the recycled material.
“If you’re doing this by yourself, make sure you can sell the material,” Dezember said. “You don’t want to have a massive pile of recycled material sitting around and not be able to do anything with it. We found the outlet for selling the material first, and then figured out how to make the material.”
One of the biggest expenditures in establishing a recycling center is the equipment purchase. StructureCast’s operation required a front-end loader, a portable crusher with screening ability, stacking conveyors, two excavators (one with a crusher tip) and a 3,000-gallon water truck, which StructureCast already owned.
Once again, Dezember’s relationships paid off. StructureCast’s paving company partner contributed a crusher it wasn’t using in exchange for a share of the profits. And an asphalt company that supplies StructureCast with asphalt waste for recycling provided two excavators at no charge.
“Getting a front-end loader was about it for our cost of getting started,” Dezember said.
If you aren’t as lucky as Dezember, here are a few things you should know about impact crushers. There can be significant differences among them, so look at multiple models from a variety of suppliers.
A mobile-tracked crusher may be the best way to get started in the recycling business. It has a relatively low cost and can load and crush at the same time.2
It helps if you know the answers to these questions before you begin shopping:
- For what application are you going to be using the crusher?
- What kind of support equipment do you already have available?
- Who will your customers likely be and what size and grade of recycled material do they use?
- Does an electric, diesel or hybrid model make more sense for you?
- Do you need to meet emissions standards?
- Do you prefer automatic, manual or remote controls?
You’ll also want to compare features such as hopper capacity, the type and quality of steel used in the frame and crusher housing and how many tons the machine can crush per hour.
Customizing the process
A full-fledged recycling process includes five steps: screening, presizing, sorting, eliminating contaminants and crushing. But that process depends on the end product.
StructureCast was able to keep it simple. The recycled concrete it processes is not contaminated and the end material – non-specified road base – requires only crushing and screening for the required grade. This eliminates three steps: pre-sizing, sorting and contaminant elimination.
Since approximately 95% of the concrete waste StructureCast recycles comes from ready-mix suppliers, there’s not much steel rebar to be retrieved. What little there is, it’s pulled out by hand once the front-loader breaks up the surrounding concrete. StructureCast collects this steel in a dumpster and sells it to an iron scrap yard.
Reinforcing steel is 100% recyclable, and more than 7 million tons of scrap steel is recycled into reinforcing bars every year.3 According to the Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute, more than 65% of all reinforcing bars are recycled.
StructureCast’s recycling center is operated by two full-time employees, working an average of 15 days per month. One runs the front-loader, which pushes the material into the crusher. The other runs the crusher, which creates a large pile of road base from waste concrete. When the center gets really busy, a third person assists.
The paving company purchases 50% to 70% of the road base. The rest is purchased by other buyers who have heard, usually by word-of-mouth, about StructureCast’s recycling center. No marketing efforts have been necessary.
Dezember said getting started and operating the recycling center has been “carefree and management-free.” The biggest challenge he faced initially was getting the permits required by the state of California. StructureCast’s recycling center is permitted by the California Air Resources Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Be sure you know the regulations in effect in your location.
“Every place is different,” Dezember said. “Some require permits while others do not. Just make sure everything is above-board and sell to places that will use it properly.”
The main issue Dezember has with the recycling center now might surprise you.
“Our No. 1 challenge is to keep inappropriate waste from being left on our property,” he said. “We have to keep our eye on that. We don’t want to have to haul it to a landfill site.”
Finding other uses and markets
StructureCast found a ready market for non-spec road base, but recycled concrete has a second life that qualifies it for a variety of uses.
It all depends on its size, shape and how it’s processed. Common uses for recycled concrete include:
- Road base for new highways or airport runways
- Paving for driveways and walkways
- Building foundations
- Pipe bedding for underground utility lines
- Landscaping mulch
- Filler for wire cages used as erosion control structures such as privacy screen walls or retaining walls
- Aggregate for creating new concrete and underpass abutments
If you have some hefty concrete elements taking up space in your plant, there are always ways and outlets to repurpose them. For example, larger precast concrete elements may be used for controlling streambank erosion or for forming the foundation for coral to build new oceanic reefs. Look at the needs of local businesses and construction projects going on in your community for inspiration.
If you decide to invest in your own recycling center, you won’t be transforming lead into gold, but you can transform waste into cash and help the environment at the same time.
Dezember estimates StructureCast started making a profit after six months. Now, everything’s profit after labor costs and the percentage he shares with the paving company for the use of the crusher.
“Recycling is a good way to get rid of our washout material and waste and make money doing it,” Dezember said. “We don’t make a ton of money, but we certainly make enough to keep doing it.”
Shari Held is an Indianapolis, Ind.-based freelance writer who has covered the construction industry for more than 10 years.