Can waste gypsum really be recycled? One Canadian company proves it every day.

In the world’s competitive gypsum wallboard market, where pricing power is almost non-existent, profits are under intense pressure and competing wall systems threaten to take away marketshare recycling waste gypsum wallboard can cut manufacturing input costs by reducing the need for more expensive virgin gypsum in new wallboard.

New West Gypsum Recycling Inc., of Vancouver, Canada, has built a thriving business recycling gypsum wallboard waste and providing this to manufacturers to be combined with virgin gypsum to make new wallboard containing up to 25 percent recycled content—with no loss in quality. The company’s process and technology is proprietary, and they claim they are an economic and value-added component of the gypsum wallboard industry.

Green is good

Having established three plants in the U.S. and Canada and having processed 1.7 million tons of waste gypsum wallboard over the past 17 years, the company’s technical prowess and longevity in the marketplace is starting to catch the eye of manufacturers, governments and environmental groups.

“We’ve had more inquiries about our technology from governmental groups and environmental interests worldwide in the last 12 months than ever before,” notes Tony McCamley, an Irish immigrant who is president of NWGR. McCamley and his wife, Gwen, founded the company in 1985 after a regional government authority in British Columbia—the Greater Vancouver Regional District—banned the placement of gypsum waste in its landfills.

“There’s no question people are seeing increased value from the recycling of waste gypsum from building sites and manufacturing plants,” says McCamley, who cites rapidly rising drywall waste disposal “tipping” fees and landfill issues as key drivers of the trend.

“While the price of drywall continues to decline, the total cost of drywall products to society—including the cost of disposing of the waste properly—continues to rise dramatically, especially in comparison to alternate wall systems,” says McCamley. “Plus, there just isn’t room in the landfills, and the health concerns from leachate are becoming more public, all issues that are potential problems for the global gypsum industry. We’re confident our technology solves the gypsum industry’s waste disposal problem.”

A technically complex process

The foundation of the NWGR process is being able to process wet gypsum waste. Most wallboard scraps are not bone dry, having come off the “wet” end of the manufacturing process, been stored outside or left out to face the elements after the construction or renovation project has been completed. The critical factor in recycling is to reduce the moisture content, so that the recycled gypsum will meet the requirements of wallboard manufacturers.

“We’ve worked through the many trials and tribulations of reprocessing waste gypsum wallboard and we know how technically difficult it can be,” adds McCamley. “Just by looking at another operation attempting to recycle gypsum waste, we are able to tell almost immediately whether their process is profitable or economic. To date, none have been because they don’t have the technology to recycle all gypsum waste properly. If you miss just one of the many factors that need to be kept in mind, the operation won’t succeed.”

To develop a process that would be reliable under many conditions, McCamley realized he needed a new technology and process. The result was innovative machinery modified specifically for the processing of waste gypsum.

“Moisture content was a big challenge, which we solved with our patented grinding technology,” he continues. “The equipment has been designed to easily handle high-moisture-content scrap. Moisture content and removing the impurities from the end products (gypsum and paper) are the main sticking points in recycling gypsum.”

Prior to founding NWGR in the ’80s, the McCamleys operated a construction materials waste and disposal company in Vancouver. The GVRD, charged with providing services such as garbage disposal, water and sewer for the cities and towns surrounding Vancouver, was already having a problem with limited space in its landfills. It was also trying to contend with the leachate and hydrogen sulfide gas created when gypsum wallboard met with groundwater and moisture in the disposal sites. Studies were commissioned and the findings became the catalyst for banning the dumping of gypsum waste into landfills.

“Our recent inquiries have come from European and American state and local governments involved in landfills and health issues,” says McCamley. “In British Columbia, the population is quite recycling-conscious. A number of cities and towns have been very assertive in actively controlling the disposal of gypsum wallboard.”

Of course, once gypsum was banned from landfills, the question became, what do we do with the scrap? This very issue led to some unscrupulous industry practices. The main one revolved around the per-ton tipping fees charged to take the waste away. Attracted by the cash-flow potential, some operators charged less per ton to get the gypsum, but then didn’t dispose of the waste properly. As McCamley notes, many companies that claim to recycle may in fact be doing something less, such as simply dumping it into a landfill or grinding it up and disposing of it on farmland.

In one case in British Columbia, a group from out of the province rented a warehouse, piled the gypsum waste up inside until the building was full, then left town with all the tipping fees. When the lease payments for the building weren’t paid, the building owner repossessed the property, only to find thousands of ton of waste gypsum wallboard in temporary storage—leaving him with a huge cleanup bill.

Drywall manufacturers part of the solution

Once the ban was in place, McCamley and employees at NWGR developed a process that pulverizes the gypsum core and removes nearly all the backing paper, leaving recycled granulated gypsum ready for use. But that was only one part of the solution. The recycled material still had to be accepted by manufacturers and incorporated back into the drywall manufacturing process.

To test the recycled product, Vancouver gypsum board plant executives initiated a pilot program to determine the effects of mixing recycled and virgin gypsum, with NWGR supplying the recycled material. They found that the NWGR product and process provided an efficient means of handling both plant production and market waste. The recycled product became an immediate, readily available source of raw material for use in the manufacture of new drywall products. With the success of the pilot program, NWGR received contracts to recycle tens of thousands of tons of scrap wallboard back to a number of manufacturers each year.

BPB Westroc of Vancouver, one of the manufacturers, has been pleased with the results. Jim Coles, Vancouver-area plant manager for BPB Westroc, notes the company’s commitment to using recycled gypsum in its premium products. “We are proud of our recycling program and will continue to increase the recycled percentage while maintaining market-preferred quality product,” says Coles.

Their quality concerns were addressed as well.

“Our wallboard plant has been producing all gypsum products with more than 22-percent recycled gypsum without detrimental effects on quality,” concludes Andreas Wicht of BPB quality control.

Recycling of the wallboard paper presented another challenge. NWGR experimented with a variety of recycling methods before developing a process that eventually created a product that met the standards of local paper manufacturers. Having addressed these concerns, NWGR had taken waste gypsum full circle and was able to confirm that their gypsum recycling process was a viable operation. As the firm grew, its success led to expansion into Eastern Canada and the United States.

The Vancouver example

The NWGR process is most efficient in larger metropolitan areas where there are consistently large volumes of gypsum wallboard waste and where one or more wallboard manufacturers are located within easy trucking distance to receive the recycled product.

The Vancouver plant is a good example of such an operation. NWGR’s Vancouver-area recycling facility is located in the industrial section of New Westminster (near the geographic center of the 1.8 million people living in the Greater Vancouver area). This plant accepts waste material from as far away as 250 miles (about four hours’ driving time) and operates 16 hours a day, six days a week. An estimated 60 trucks and semi-trailers carrying construction scraps and manufacturer’s waste arrive each day, and the plant processes approximately 70,000 tons of gypsum wallboard waste every year.

After the incoming waste is loaded onto the plant’s tipping floor, large wheel loaders continuously move the gypsum waste to the recycling machinery, where it is loaded into a receiving bin and the processing begins (see sidebar on page 27 for overview of the process). Once a load has been fully processed and turned into its residual component parts of granulated recycled gypsum and paper fiber, the separate products are then transported to wallboard manufacturers and papermakers to be incorporated back into new products, completing the cycle. The recycled gypsum is sold to the manufacturer at a price below that of virgin gypsum.

The two major limiting factors affecting the economics of setting up a recycling system in a particular city or region are the per-ton fees currently charged to take drywall scrap from a job site and the cost of transporting the waste gypsum to the recycling plant vs. the local landfill. Success depends on the recycling costs being competitive.

NWGR analyses have found that developing large “fixed plant” systems such as Vancouver’s is not likely to be cost-effective in smaller areas. To process the volumes of gypsum waste found in broader-based urban areas and at manufacturing plants, NWGR has developed a self-contained portable unit that can be transported and set up at any site. This product is most useful at multi-material recycling facilities and wallboard manufacturing plants.

The portable unit can process up to 25 tons of waste per hour. At this processing speed, almost any accumulated gypsum waste and/or any gypsum waste stream could be recycled. After cleaning up the waste at one site, the unit can then be rotated to other facilities to repeat the process.

The recycling potential: The U.S. example

It is estimated that the United States produces 30 million tons of drywall annually. According to NWGR’s analysis, 3 to 5 percent of the gypsum used in the wallboard manufacturing process emerges as waste at the wallboard plant. In construction and renovation, when drywall is cut and placed into position, a further 10 to 12 percent ends up as scrap.

This is not an insignificant amount. In house construction, the industry rule of thumb is that wallboard scrap will equal 1 pound per square foot of floor area—or about 1 ton for the average house. Multiplying that figure by the number of houses built each year indicates the magnitude of scrap available just in the new home construction market.

Combining the above information, an estimated 13 to 17 percent of the gypsum used in the wallboard market is potentially available to be recycled. Based on the annual production estimate of 30 million ton, this would be equivalent to a range of 4 to 5 million tons available to be recycled each year in the U.S. alone.

Given that NWGR has found that new drywall can incorporate more than 25 percent recycled gypsum, and that the total projected waste is just 17 percent at best, it is obvious that all recyclable gypsum could be incorporated easily into the manufacture of new wallboard.

Of course, a certain amount of waste gypsum will always be found outside the geographic range of the recycling plants and the lower disposal tipping fees found in some jurisdictions may render recycling uneconomical. Overall, however, based on NWGR’s experience in the Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto markets, there is tremendous potential for recycling gypsum in larger metropolitan centers in both Europe and the U.S.

But again, the circle comes back to gypsum manufacturers, whose buy-in is essential to the recycling success. In the environmental movement, a concept called “Extended Producer Responsibility” has emerged in recent years. This ethic mandates that the manufacturer take responsibility for the waste disposal problem generated by its products. As McCamley notes, a stronger sense of this responsibility may be required within the gypsum manufacturing industry to ensure voluntary compliance with new recycling initiatives.

“There is no doubt that the recycling of gypsum is a valuable cost-saving measure for the gypsum wallboard industry, which could make a substantial difference to a manufacturer’s bottom line,” says McCamley. “A strong commitment to recycling could help improve both the public and the government regulatory authority perception of the wallboard industry’s commitment to product stewardship and the environment—and that could be the most important benefit of all.”

Given the pressures noted above, global drywall manufacturers could begin to voluntarily take up the recycling of market waste themselves to protect their market share. They also, of course, have the option of having their hand forced by public pressure, government edicts, the rising costs of waste disposal and the increasing competitiveness of alternative wall systems.

Regardless of how the gypsum recycling issue unfolds, McCamley and his company will continue their work, demonstrating day after day a process that not only works but also is profitable and efficient. It’s a win-win solution for the environment, the recycler and the gypsum wallboard manufacturing industry.