recycling natural disaster

The Challenges of Recycling After a Natural Disaster

With extreme weather events causing more tragic natural disasters at home and abroad than ever before, I want to dive into a brief look at the challenges associated with recycling materials after a natural disaster.

From the recent record flooding that soaked large swaths of the midwest, to the tornadoes that struck Alabama, to the fires that decimated Paradise, California and parts of Malibu late last year, cleaning up after a flood, tornado, or fire is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. This only gets more difficult when you’re looking to recycle the debris that formed as a result.

While saving human and animal lives should always be priority number one during a natural disaster, once things begin to get back to relative normalcy, the challenges of diverting recyclable materials to the correct construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facilities become all too apparent. They include:

Time and Labor Costs

The time and labor required to sort through debris and separate recyclables into multiple streams (paper, plastics, glass, etc.) presents the biggest challenge to waste diversion after a natural disaster.

This is entirely possible when a company such as Rubicon® partners with a comprehensive cleanup and restoration organization so we can handle the waste and recycling portion of the restoration effort. If this infrastructure isn’t in place, this becomes much more difficult. Without this defined structure, debris is more often than not going to be loaded onto a truck and carted away; an act that will contaminate otherwise recyclable materials by dumping them alongside hazardous waste.

High Contamination

Speaking of recycling contamination (the act of non-recyclable materials being mixed with recyclable materials, or recyclable materials being dirtied to an extent that makes them difficult or expensive to clean), this, unfortunately, happens in abundance after a natural disaster.

Whether after a flood, tornado, or fire, debris will consist of everything that was caught up in the disaster. This means a mixture of material streams—some of which can and should be recycled. Streams such as concrete or sheet metal are no-brainers to recycle, whereas others such as painted wood or insulation would likely not be. The act of throwing different materials in together to be recycled is known as aspirational recycling, and it’s a real problem after a natural disaster. Unless there is a system in place to sort and separate debris, contamination will occur.

Damaged Recyclables

Unlike with flooding or tornadoes, recycling after a wildfire presents the added challenge of having to deal with otherwise recyclable materials that have been badly burned or melted.

While minor damage to certain materials doesn’t entirely reduce its ability to be recycled (untreated wood that has been charred could still be used for biomass energy, but would not be suitable for mulching, for example), other materials, such as plastic bottles that have been burned or melted, are unlikely to have a commodity value. (Recycled plastic bottles are shredded and washed. It would be difficult to handle a large chunk of melted plastic.)

The challenges of recycling after a natural disaster are always exacerbated when there isn’t solid recycling and waste recovery infrastructure already in place. While some disasters will leave little room for diversion either logistically or due to material regulations (different cities and municipalities have different recycling rules), ensuring your city or organization has good processes in place ahead of time will help protect you from being caught out should a disaster hit.


Chris Batterson is Key Construction and Demolition Account Manager at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

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