Illustration by Rachel Morris.

How could the surge in development-related construction affect Gainesville’s environment?

T here’s no hiding Gainesville’s teeming sprawl. In Butler Plaza and the new Celebration Pointe, bulldozers claw at the ground to make way for spanking new theaters and restaurants. Fluorescent orange tape and red signs dot the commute through South Main Street, made longer by the closed-off roads.

According to an article by the Environmental Protection Agency, 1,700,000 commercial buildings are constructed in the United States every year. In Gainesville, CADE Museum is now open, and the University of Florida recently announced plans to build a new School of Music southeast corner of University and 13th street. But where do the dusty remains of construction go to die?

With the surge in commercial development along Butler Plaza, and redevelopment along South Main and Sixth Street, in mind, The Fine Print is breaking down everything you need to know about waste and sediment from construction, and how it can impact the environment.

What is construction waste?

Not all waste is alike. Construction waste and debris (C&D) comprises numerous materials including but not limited to: plastic buckets, tin, steel, fiberglass, plywood, 2x4s, lumber, roofing materials, cardboard boxes and visqueen plastic. Unlike the usual household garbage or municipal solid waste (MSW) – think old catalogs and paper or that unfinished bowl of cereal in the morning – C&D can’t be collected in trash bags and set on the side of the road.

Where does it go?

Generally, construction companies will contract with private companies that specialize in handling C&D. In Gainesville, the bulk of construction-related waste is processed by two companies, Watson C&D, and Florence Recycling and Disposal.

Jim Bocam, a sales manager at Watson’s C&D, estimates the company can dump around 40 dumpsters of C&D a day, or around 14,600 a year. That’s about 43,800 tons of C&D waste per year just for Watson C&D.

To compare, a 2010 study prepared for the Alachua County Public Works Department estimated that in 2008 the county generated 61,608 dumpsters of MSW. Generally, Watsons tries to recycle as much as possible. Recycling materials like concrete, rocks and bricks, which can be easily broken down for reuse, is easier than creating entirely new ones. Bocam said that Watson will even reuse these materials to fill in the pockets of clay in the foundation of homes or businesses to make them more stable. 

However, not everything can be recycled. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the vast majority of C&D waste in Alachua County in 2016 — 97.6 percent, or 25,293 tons — is disposed in a landfill. Only 2.4 percent, or 620 tons, was recycled. The explanation? Recycling is costly, and Bacom said that recycling centers can be backlogged. Oftentimes, the nature of the material renders it unsuitable for recycling.

For example, drywall can be recycled but only if it is dry. Wet drywall is another story: The primary component in the material, gypsum, contains sulfates and water. If wet drywall is disposed or recycled incorrectly, these sulfates can contaminate the water.

Fortunately, C&D waste is inert, meaning it’s harmless. It’s really materials such as paint waste, solvents or any flammable products that are considered hazardous. These materials should already be separated from C&D waste before it hits the landfill. Improper disposal or recycling of hazardous materials could result in ground water contamination.

The Environment

There are several environmental implications that could arise out of construction projects.

Heavy Metals
The Environmental Protection Agency’s most wanted substances? Heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, lead and nickel (to name a few). Even when finely broken down, these heavy metals are still present and easily dispersed in landfills, posing serious harm to those who come into contact with them.

“People think that if you hide it long enough, it will go away, but it doesn’t,” Bacom said. “We’re talking heavy metals, and they don’t go away.”

Erosion and Sediment Control
In rainy Gainesville, one of the biggest concerns is erosion and sediment control. Gus Olmos, the water resources manager at the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department (DEP), said poor drainage and sand is one of the common complaints he receives, and heavy rainfall can increase the chance of sediment drainage.

Construction companies are responsible for implementing proper parameters to ensure that dust and sand do not find their way into storm drains. For example, project sequencing (i.e. planning that ensures that tasks meet compliance) and protection of storm drain inlets are proper ways to prevent this. Silt fencing is also the most common method of prevention, but it’s commonly installed incorrectly, according to the Alachua County DEP.

If the parameters are not properly followed, Olmos said that sand and dust could drain into local creeks and suffocate bugs and fish. Turbid water could block sunlight in creeks and prevent photosynthesis. Moreover, stormwater could contain harmful metals and contaminants that as well.

Gas Emissions
Joni Perry’s house is located right off Sixth Street, and her road is completely blocked off. The detours she makes adds an extra 10 minutes to her daily commute when she drives her son to school. It’s an indirect effect from construction, but detours and added traffic can result in increased carbon dioxide emissions.

Furthermore, several companies rely on concrete for construction. The global cement industry produces approximately 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to an article by Esub Construction Software.

Regulating recycling

Bulldozers can’t touch ground unless the Alachua County Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approves the project’s site plan. As part of this approval, inspectors survey the site periodically for compliance. Inspectors also look at how waste is recorded and monitored.

Bacom said some construction companies follow a grading scale to measure how well they abide by Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements. If they don’t follow these requirements, they have to pay certain fees.

While construction sites are regulated, complacency is always a concern. At the end of the day, many Alachua County DEP officials advocate for awareness. It’s important to know what to recycle and how to recycle it. As for Gainesville residents, any observations of non-compliance can be directed to the DEP to inspect to address these concerns. •