The May 20, 2013, EF-5 tornado that destroyed much of Moore, Okla. left in its wake a mass of rubble almost too enormous to fathom. Houses that were reduced to a pile of bricks and timber, mangled vehicles and even enormous steel beams littered the landscape like plastic bags along a fence row. Sometimes even before the initial shock is over the clean-up begins. But where does all the rubble go?
Just How Much Debris Is There?
To put things in perspective, here are some examples from previous natural disasters in the U.S. which represent the sheer volume of waste that can be generated:
* Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 generated 2 million cubic yards of green waste just from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
* In 1991, Hurricane Andrew resulted in 43 million cubic yards of mixed disaster debris from Metro-Dade County alone.
* Hurricane Katrina in 2005 generated wood debris that totaled a massive 50 million tons.
Can Anything be Recycled?
Almost all debris that results from a natural disaster can be recycled or reused in some way. For instance:
* Organic materials such as downed trees can be shredded into mulch.
* Concrete and asphalt can be crushed and used to make roads.
* Metal can be recycled in a number of ways.
* Brick can be reused as is or crushed and used in landscaping applications.
* Dirt can even be used as fill or to replace eroded farm soil.
How Much of Disaster Debris Is Actually Recycled?
American Recycler explains that, “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Katrina debris, as well as debris from other disasters, is not recycled …” Most of the waste is simply transported to nearby landfills.
The challenges that prevent recycling the rubble are numerous, but one of the biggest is the comingling of different types of waste. The immediate focus after such a devastating event is on the people who have been impacted and making sure they have the medical attention and shelter assistance they require. Setting up sorting stations for rubble isn’t often part of a community’s disaster management plan.
How Can We Effect Change?
Like most challenges, the answer to more environmentally-sound disaster debris management is economic. If we can find a way to make the sorting and recycling of disaster debris profitable, it will get done.
Robert Puga, site trustee of the contaminated Asargo location in El Paso, Texas, recognizes the potential. The rebar alone from the two smokestacks that were demolished on April 13, 2013, are estimated to rake in $300,000. The concrete will be crushed and reused to fill depressions and level the site.
But this all requires pre-planning. The Environmental Protection Agency urges community leaders to think ahead and put together a Disaster Debris Management Plan before disaster strikes. Communities along the Gulf Coast, those sitting atop California’s fault lines and any that occupy the Midwest’s tornado alley would be well advised to start today.