November 25, 2005 | General


BioCycle November 2005, Vol. 46, No. 11, p. 51
Collection, contaminants and crisis avoidance meet up with looking ahead to the future and achieving sustainable goals for managing wastes.

DEVASTATION from Hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans alone led to 22 million tons of trash – organic and not-so-organic debris – that included trees and limbs as well as countless refrigerators, stoves plus pesticides and mercury. For the region as a whole, the tonnages are astounding. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, more than $2 billion in contracts have been awarded for the region, in what is likely the most complicated clean-up in American history.
According to reports, the Corps has planned methods for six waste categories: green, household, construction, chemical, appliances and vehicles. “We’ll get rid of the most dangerous stuff first,” a staff person for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality told a newspaper reporter. Much of the natural debris – such as tree trunks, branches and leaves – will be turned into wood chips and compost, while some will be burned to prevent termites from spreading. Infrastructure left few options for alternatives as pressure mounted to get waste away from people.
Writes Bill Carney of the Louisiana State University AgCenter: “Control of lead contamination and spread of Formosan termites are high priorities. Any building containing painted surfaces and constructed prior to 1978 will probably be considered lead contaminated. … About treatment guidelines, microbial decomposition prior to burial, may be needed for much of the lead-contaminated wastes (exterior siding, windows, doors, cabinets, etc.). Lead-contaminated materials cannot be burned because of the low volatilization point of lead. Generous use of soil or very mature compost in combination with a neutral pH may bind up active lead and mitigate its toxic effects.”
A briefing report prepared by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), “Hurricane Katrina Disaster Debris Management: Lessons Learned from State and Local Governments,” summarizes responses received from members regarding specific techniques to minimize loss and maximize debris recovery. The following Best Management Practices were excerpted from the SWANA document:
“The main priority is to focus on those recovery and collection activities that will be the quickest to implement, with the least amount of human exposure to any hazardous or toxic materials present in the waste stream …. Typically, there will be two major phases to a debris management strategy. The first is the removal of debris which could cause an immediate threat to public safety (highly unstable structures, clearing of roadways, etc.). Generally, the opportunities for diversion and recycling during this phase will be limited. The second phase is long-term debris removal associated with recovery. This phase provides the greatest opportunity for diversion and recovery.”
“Wastes vary significantly but generally consist of the following categories: concrete, asphalt, metals, green waste, plastic, sandbags, soil and rock, wallboard, glass, white goods, brown goods, bricks, household hazardous wastes, furniture and personal belongings such as clothing.”
“Conventional waste collection equipment will have limited use during initial stages of disaster debris clean-up. Target large areas with ‘collection zones’ set up for efficiency assigned to one contractor. Establish multiple zones within close geographic areas so contractors do not interfere with each other during collection. Utilize end-dump trucks and tracked excavators with grapples and/or wheeled bucket loaders to handle large scale debris clean-up. After a couple of passes, traditional collection assets such as roll-off containers and rear and front end loading packer trucks can swing into service for individual cleanups.”
“Develop multiple staging areas around hurricane-impacted regions with targets in mind for materials to be processed. Set up concrete and asphalt crushing operations close to sites accessible for future construction, wood and tree grinding in areas that will need organic supplements or slope stability improvements, metal and vehicle processing as close to Port of New Orleans as possible since eventual markets will probably be off-shore or at least transported by ship.”
“Set up industrial hazardous materials processing sites near commercial/industrial areas. Do not waste resources on retrieving small quantities of household hazardous waste (HHW). Target those larger quantity generators for special handling and allow small quantities of HHW commingled with other debris to move to regular MSW landfills with composite liners.”
“Handle all soft goods such as bedding, mattresses, curtains, carpet, clothes as soon as possible. No salvageable material will be collected from these items. These items will be extremely heavy and hard to handle and will need to be mechanically loaded by bucket loaders and/or excavators with grapples.”
The BMP list gives an example of a recovery situation in residential areas in Kauai, Hawaii. Residents were asked to place debris into five piles at the curb: green waste; metals and appliances; wood debris; aggregate materials (including toilets, tile roofing and concrete) and mixed debris. This facilitated collection and processing. SWANA’s Hurricane Katrina debris management document includes a final draft of Hawaii’s 2005 “Disaster Debris Management Plan. Best management techniques are included for 11 different waste types. There are tables for each debris category that include management technique, costs, debris reduction efficiency, environmental friendliness, human health and safety and public acceptability.”
In general, SWANA notes, assessments for processing capabilities and market absorption of targeted recoverable materials should be determined prior to collection efforts. Environmental priorities for disposal or reuse/recycling should be grounded in good science and communicated to the public up front so expectations are clear and achievable. “Hurricane Disaster-Debris Management” is available as a PDF document on the SWANA website (
The Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA) represents construction waste and demolition debris processors and recyclers. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, CMRA compiled a list of its members in the region who could assist in the clean-up. “We found out who had what equipment and if they were available to respond,” says William Turley, CMRA’s Executive Director. “We passed that information along to all the main contractors, as well as FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. EPA.”
He adds that members in the region have been able to offer processing services. One company has both a crusher and a grinder to process mixed C&D debris. “Right before Katrina, he crushed everything he had on site,” says Turley. “That material was sold right away to help in rebuilding roads. Now, the crusher is idle because the debris is so mixed. However, he is doing a lot of grinding to accomplish volume reduction.” A member in Mississippi is setting up a recycling plant on a 300-acre site.
While public agencies and trade groups like CMRA are promoting recycling of these materials, the task is challenging. “Everything is so commingled,” Turley notes, “and there has been no abatement for asbestos or lead-based paint. So contractors need to be very careful about recycling. We’ve heard that one market for chipped wood is use as a boiler fuel at a paper plant.”
Amidst all the devastation, much planning is underway for the reconstruction phase of the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans. In the October 2005 issue of In Business, BioCycle’s sister publication, Alex Wilson – Executive Editor of Environmental Building News – described his ten-point plan for rebuilding New Orleans that seeks to protect the environment while respecting the well-being of the city’s residents. “New Orleans is almost certain to be rebuilt in its present location,” Wilson points out, and proponents of sustainable design should be part of the discussion about the rebuilding. Deconstruction, bioremediation and soils restoration are among the strategies. Highlights from his plan are summarized below. (The complete text of the article by Wilson appears in the October, 2005 issue of EBN and can be found by visiting
Institute a Sustainable New Orleans planning task force. This task force, comprised of leading national experts in sustainable development and community leaders from the New Orleans area, should develop a series of neighborhood, community, city, and regional plans over the next six to 12 months.
Pursue coastal and floodplain restoration as the number one priority in rebuilding New Orleans. Rebuilding without addressing the fundamental hydrologic forces that influence this region would be folly.
Immediately establish Sustainable New Orleans enterprise-zone businesses to salvage and warehouse building materials. Even as the planning gets underway for rebuilding New Orleans, locally owned businesses that employ residents should be set up to deconstruct damaged buildings and recover materials that can be used in rebuilding.
Create Sustainable New Orleans overlay zoning to ensure that the goals of sustainability, safety, and urban vitality will be followed in the city’s redevelopment. The zoning should provide for mixed uses, pedestrian access, energy efficiency, renewable energy systems that can help residents weather extended power outages, and a strong platform of building science for all construction. Retain and restore those buildings that can be salvaged.
Mandate or incentivize green building. The city, state, and federal governments, as well as insurance companies and banks, should encourage going well beyond minimum standards in the reconstruction of the city.
Clean up the new brownfields of New Orleans. The most ecologically responsible means, including bioremediation, phytoremediation, and ecological restoration, should be used to detoxify the pollutant-laden sediments left by the flooding.
Work with industry to clean up the factories along the Gulf Coast. As part of rebuilding in the New Orleans region, partnerships should be forged among industry, government agencies, environmental organizations, and affected residents to find long-term solutions for greening the industries in this area, which is known as “Cancer Alley.” – J.G.

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