Understanding RCI certification for C&D recyclers

Understanding RCI certification for C&D recyclers

Stephen Bantillo, executive director of RCI, spoke with Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine about the reception to the agency’s certification program, the benefits it has provided to the industry and the organization’s push to mandate certified rates for LEED projects.

November 11, 2019


As many local and state jurisdictions continue their push to enforce recycling mandates, and as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program continues to emphasize awarding credits for construction and demolition (C&D) material recovery and recycling, it is more important than ever for C&D recyclers to ensure a high level of accuracy in their diversion and recovery rates.

The Sacramento, California-based Recycling Certification Institute (RCI) was formed to help these facilities prove just that.

Through its Certification of Recycling Rates (CORR) Protocol, which was developed to International Organization of Standardization (ISO)-level standards, RCI helps recyclers verify their diversion rates from landfill.

Under the CORR Protocol, which RCI has overseen since 2014, two dozen recycling lines are currently certified, with several more recyclers going through the process to get their lines certified by the end of 2019.

Stephen Bantillo, executive director of RCI, spoke with Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine about reception to the program, the benefits it has provided to the industry and the organization’s push to mandate certified rates for LEED projects.

Construction & Demolition Recycling (C&DR): How do you think the CORR program has been received to date from the C&D recycling community?

Stephen Bantillo (SB): It’s been a mixed bag. Some folks are open to it and very interested in becoming certified because they see how it will benefit their company. Others may have some concerns about what might be discovered [when their facility is audited by an independent third party], and there are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes recyclers think they’re doing a good job, but they are hesitant to go through the process because of concerns about repercussions if it is discovered they have been reporting incorrectly. And in other instances, we’ve had facilities that the industry recognizes as innovators and as the gold standards, and we have gone through the certification process and found that they weren’t reporting 100 percent correctly. So, for these facilities, while their recycling rate may have gone down, they welcomed this feedback because they want to be reporting correctly. They appreciated having another set of eyes come in and find those errors so they can improve their processes and get their rates back up.

In the end, it’s a business process audit. The CORR Protocol doesn’t really care about what the recycling rate is. It cares about how that facility arrived at its recycling rate. So, it really looks at the various business processes, particularly those related to data management, tracking and reporting. In many respects, going through the certification process is a significant benefit to the facility because it helps them validate and improve their accuracy and efficiencies.

C&DR: How do you think RCI certification affects the contractors who work with these recyclers?

SB: It’s not just the recycling facilities, but also the contractors and builders who can benefit when a recycler gets certified. They like to have a certified facility in their area where they can get verified recovery rates for their projects because they want to know how they’re doing in terms of diversion as well. They’re going through the efforts of pulling these recyclable materials out from their projects to get them recovered, and many are looking to achieve some LEED points for their efforts. Above all, they appreciate knowing that they have verified recycling rates they can rely on, which is especially important for those who are “building green.”

For the recyclers, this certification can set them apart from other facilities in the same region with whom they are competing. They want their customers to know that they’ve gone through the verification process and that their numbers are accurate, and all of that information on these facilities is available in the reports on the RCI website.

C&DR: Some recyclers have expressed concern of going through the certification process and having to prove their recycling rates while their competitors may not be held to the same standards, specifically as it pertains to some LEED jobs. What is RCI’s perspective on this?

SB: Certified facilities have expressed frustration that the USGBC is still accepting the self-reported recycling rates of all facilities around them that haven’t been certified. Many believe that the facilities might be making up these recycling rates or inflating their numbers. There’s a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding related to recovery rates at facilities. For LEED projects, the USGBC does not count alternative daily cover towards diversion, but a lot of facilities like to include the alternative daily cover in their recovery rates they report. When a contractor comes up to them and asks what their recovery rate is, they’ll state a high number and the contractor may decide to bring their loads to them because they say they have a higher recovery rate while not fully understanding the nuances and the details of how that rate is determined.

At RCI, our preference would be that USGBC stop giving points for projects based on unverified recovery rates. If they’re focusing on performance, then their rating system [should be set up] to accept only clarified numbers. Otherwise, there’s the potential that as they begin to calculate the environmental benefits and greenhouse gas emission reductions of green building projects, they could be misreporting those numbers. In essence, if you’re not verifying these rates, the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” may apply.

C&DR: What kind of communication has RCI had with the USGBC on this issue?

SB: When the USGBC was looking for input for LEED version 4.1, both RCI and the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association submitted a very clear set of recommendations on how USGBC should go forward with that related to materials and resources. We recommended that they should set up the program so that points are given out for materials sent to facilities that have been certified to a national standard. That’s the only way they’re going to have a high level of confidence that the numbers have been verified and are accurate. USGBC didn’t adhere to this guidance for the original 4.1 beta version of LEED, but they got much closer to that with the most recent release in July.

The latest version of LEED has two defined paths—paths 2 and 4—that clearly identify options for projects that make it simpler for contractors to use facilities that have been certified by RCI. We’re very appreciative of that. Now, if contractors have a project and they’re looking for one LEED point, they can take all of the mixed C&D to a facility certified by RCI as capable of 50 percent recovery. They don’t have to do any sort of separation themselves, which has been really problematic for a lot of the builders because of space constraints on the job and the extra work this requires. Now, for two points and 75 percent recovery, they can send all the mixed C&D to an RCI-certified facility with one additional stream pulled out. So, commonly they’ll pull out wood or drywall or even metal and take materials to a facility to get LEED points. Now with paths 1 and 3 in the latest version of LEED, contractors have to do more separation to receive credit. At RCI, we’d like to see paths 1 and 3 go away because we much prefer that materials go to a facility that’s been audited and has the numbers verified to both elevate the C&D industry and give USGBC assurances on performance relative to the recovery of the C&D materials.

C&DR: Why do you think the USGBC hasn’t required CORR certification across the board?

SB: One of the challenges that’s been expressed is that the USGBC does focus on projects in the United States, but they really are looking at being able to have an international standard that can apply everywhere, and RCI does not operate in other countries presently. I think that the USGBC might be hesitant to require standards that don’t exist in other countries because it is preferable to have a level playing field internationally. So, I think that’s one of the barriers when it comes to requiring verification of recycling rates across the board. But from our vantage point, mandating verification of rates in the U.S. doesn’t preclude the USGBC or other organizations from establishing certification programs abroad.

C&DR: Local and state governments are getting more involved with pushing for C&D diversion. What effect has this had on the recycling industry?

SB: One of the challenges we’re dealing with is that government agencies are setting recycling mandates that the current markets for construction and demolition materials don’t support. These high recovery rates are being written into local ordinances and they demand recovery of the maximum amount of material, which is a positive, but not to the extent that it encourages misreporting. Sometimes recycling facilities may report a higher recovery rate than they are actually achieving because they feel they have to so they can participate in the local government program. However, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Contractors are compelled to recycle material when mandated to do so. The conflict that arises is that the material they bring to a facility may be contaminated to the extent a recycling facility won’t want to take it in because they’re not going to be able to meet their recycling rate, so they turn contractors away, and then this causes issues. It’s an interesting dilemma for the folks who are writing the regulations to try to wrangle. A workable solution is to write regulations so that they are focused on the performance of a facility and that the facility goes through an audit process to verify its processes and not just its diversion percentage. Facilities often cannot control the quality of the material they receive, but if they are recovering the maximum amount of recoverable C&D, isn’t that a good thing? We think so.

C&DR: Every recycler wants to maximize their diversion. Are you optimistic that the industry is advancing and recyclers are improving how materials are managed?

SB: The short answer is yes. Many people know this already, but the robots are coming. Technology is improving the way we think about the recovery of C&D materials. There are several facilities across the country, including Recon Services in Austin, Texas, and Zanker Road in California, that have increased productivity and improved recovery rates through the introduction of robots, which generally leads to a higher quality of material that is able to find markets. We know that finding markets across the board is really challenging, so anything we can do to help improve the materials for the market is going to boost recovery, boost the economy and lead to more job growth as well.

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling. The author is the editor for Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.