Millions of pounds of recyclable material dumped at landfill instead
Many roofing companies boast they are sending scrap shingles to be recycled, but the material is really piling up across Indiana with nowhere to go.
When powerful storms dropped golf ball- and baseball-sized hail on central Indiana this spring and summer, the resulting damage was massive. Roofs took the brunt of the storms’ fury, with thousands of homes getting new roofs due to March and June hail that caused more than $500 million in damages.
While insurance companies and homeowners suffered significant losses, the biggest loser from this year’s hail probably isn’t who you might expect. The storms’ impact on Indiana’s environment will last hundreds of years.
A 13News investigation has discovered a promising effort in Indiana to collect and recycle discarded roofing material has stalled, leaving enormous piles of asphalt shingles to pile up in landfills and at recycling companies that have nowhere to send them. The result is tens of millions of pounds of construction waste that could be recycled in Indiana are not being recycled at all, even as some roofing companies deceptively claim otherwise.
Mountains of Waste:
This fall, as roofing companies continued to replace roofs that had been damaged by Indiana’s spring and summer hail storms, 13 Investigates followed dozens of work crews to see where they took the damaged shingles they had torn off roofs. All of the contractors ended up at the same place: South Side Landfill in Indianapolis.
At times, the line of pickup trucks pulling trailers full of shingles is more than 30 vehicles long – all waiting to dump their massive loads in what has become a shingle graveyard.
In just the past two years, South Side Landfill has accepted more than 30 million pounds of discarded asphalt shingles. A mountain of shingles at the landfill has already been fully covered with dirt. A second mountain sits exposed, with a constant buzz of bulldozers shifting around newly dumped shingles from a steady stream of pickup trucks that arrive 14 hours each day.
“We’re talking about a lot of shingles here, more than 15 tons of it right behind us,” landfill spokesman Andy Harris told 13News. “I think the homeowners, they don’t know where those shingles are going.”
You probably should know.
Industry experts estimate petroleum-based shingles take between 300 and 400 years to fully decompose, and environmental advocates say putting them into landfills should be a last resort.
“It takes up a lot of space. It can potentially leach materials that are not great for groundwater, so we want to keep those kinds of things out of landfills as much as we can,” said Allyson Mitchell, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition. “When you put it in a landfill, that’s the end of its useful life, and we know there are other uses for shingles.”
The 13 Investigates team took a road trip to southern Indiana to show how asphalt shingles can bypass landfills all together.
About 150 miles south of Indianapolis, behind a bakery in the town of Celestine, Ind., you’ll find DuBois County Construction Services. It’s where Jeremy Betz has turned an old lumberyard into a recycling company that focuses solely on asphalt shingles.
Betz says over the past decade he has successfully recycled about 20 million pounds of shingles that would have otherwise gone to landfills. Those shingles are pulverized into a material that looks like coffee grounds. It is then sent to paving companies that use the recycled asphalt shingles -- known as “RAS” in the paving industry – as an ingredient in new asphalt for highways, roads and parking lots.
“I always thought there’s got to be something this can be used for, a better way to do this than just throwing things in a landfill and burying it,” Betz told 13News.
Last year was one of the best years ever for the recycling company, which gets discarded shingles from local roofing contractors and from a shingle recycling program in nearby Warrick County. Betz then processes the shingles and sells the recycled material to J.H. Rudolph & Co., a paving company based in southwest Indiana that has received more than $37 million in state paving contracts in the past six years.
What Betz is doing in southern Indiana used to happen all over the state. But not anymore.
13 Investigates has discovered there is not a single recycling center in central or northern Indiana that is actively recycling asphalt shingles right now. That’s why millions of pounds of shingles are going straight to landfills -- even though many roofing companies would have you think otherwise.
Owens Corning, one of the nation’s largest asphalt shingle manufacturers, lists many of its partner roofing companies in central Indiana as contractors that have taken its “shingle recycling pledge.”
“When you choose a contractor who has taken the pledge, you get their commitment that your old shingles won't end up in a landfill,” says the Owens Corning website.
But when 13 Investigates called ten of those roofing contractors, four said they are not sure if they actually recycle shingles, four admitted they are not, and two gave us bad information that is simply incorrect.
Those two roofing companies told 13News they are currently sending torn-off shingles to Indiana Shingle Recycling, which is on the state’s list of approved businesses that can accept shingles for recycling. But the owner of Indiana Shingle Recycling told 13Investigates he isn’t accepting shingles for recycling right now, and he hasn’t for more than a year.
In fact, the company has a sprawling pile of unprocessed shingles behind its south-side Indianapolis facility that it cannot get rid of. From overhead, a 13News drone shows just how massive that pile is, with some stacks of shingles towering more than 12-feet high and stretching out in all directions. The company's grinding machine sits idle.
“We haven’t been taking any new shingles since, I’d say, last fall – for sure not this year,” Indiana Shingle Recycling co-owner Jeff Ray told 13News. “There’s no money in it right now, so we’re just trying to hang in there until things change.”
Ray’s Trash Service told 13Investigates the same thing. That’s the only other company in central Indiana with an IDEM-issued “active legitimate use approval” to recycle shingles.
13 Investigates reviewed state inspection records, and those documents reveal millions of pounds of shingles that Ray’s Trash Service collected for recycling are now being buried in a landfill instead.
A 2019 IDEM inspection report states that Ray’s, which is authorized to grind recycled shingles at its Farnsworth Metal Recycling facility in Indianapolis, hadn’t been recycling scrap shingles for several years.
“They advised IDEM staff that the facility had not received any shingles or sent any ground shingles off for re-use since 2017; however, whole and ground shingles remained onsite,” an IDEM inspector wrote.
Another IDEM inspection report from this September reveals what is happening to the large piles of unprocessed shingles that piled up at Ray’s metal recycling facility in Indianapolis.
“The facility has been actively removing and disposing of shingles at South Side Landfill,” the reports says.
Records obtained by 13News show Ray’s Trash Service has sent more than 3.3 million pounds of scrap shingles collected for recycling to landfill in the past five months, and the company has no plans to re-start its shingle recycling efforts.
“We’re not doing that because paving companies we used to sell to stopped using it. It was really disappointing to see them quit doing that,” said Ray’s general manager Calvin Davidson.
Multiple roofing companies told 13News that without any recycling options, they now have no option but to send scrap shingles to landfill. That sentiment is shared by the private, contracted work crews that tear shingles off homes and dispose of them. Those contractors say they prefer to recycle because it actually costs considerably less to take a load of scrap shingles to a recycling center (roughly $100-$150) than to a landfill ($200-$300, depending on weight).
Erasmo Ramirez, who travels across the country with his work crew to replace roofs in areas hard hit by hail storms, said he always recycles the scrap shingles he removes from roofs when he works in Texas and North Dakota – but not here.
“Pretty much here in Indiana, the only thing we do with the shingles is we just take it to the landfill,” he said. “I take a trip to the landfill just about every day, six days a week. It would be better for me to recycle.”
Why Recyclable Shingles are Heading to Landfills:
It’s a drastic change from ten years ago, when Indiana paving companies couldn't get their hands on enough recycled shingles. Because they offer a less expensive way to produce hot mix asphalt, recycled shingles were wildly popular.
“In 2008 and 2009, when the price of oil surged and there was a polymer shortage worldwide, recycled asphalt shingles became an alternative asphalt binder, and a lot of paving companies and state [transportation departments] began experimenting with RAS,” explained Richard Willis, vice president of engineering at the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA). “We saw a drastic increase in the amount of shingles used in asphalt mixtures, and there was a lot of excitement about it.”
But that excitement changed almost overnight, after some paving companies started adding too much recycled shingle mixture to their asphalt recipes.
“We got out a little ahead of the science and started using a higher percentage than what we should have – in some states, 7-10% of the total weight of the mix – and we started to see some premature cracking around 2014 and 2015. The mixes just weren’t lasting as long as we expected them to, and that’s when the bottom fell out,” Willis said.
All of sudden, a once-promising solution for the asphalt industry became a problem. Faced with a choice between asphalt roads that were less expensive to produce and more environmentally friendly or roads that had fewer potholes and lasted longer, the choice was clear.
Starting in 2015, paving companies and state transportation departments began reducing the amount of RAS allowed in their asphalt mixtures, prompting what Willis calls a “precipitous drop” in the amount of recycled shingles used nationwide.
The Indiana Department of Transportation responded by changing its asphalt specifications in 2018. Instead of allowing 5% of asphalt mixtures to come from recycled asphalt shingles, INDOT lowered the amount to 3%, according to agency spokeswoman Mallory Duncan. The specs impact all state, county and municipal paving projects in Indiana that receive federal dollars.
Owens Corning acknowledges that recycling efforts have slowed due to a combination of factors.
“The amount of recycled shingles continues to decline every year due to factors such as: recycling centers closing; recycling centers discontinuing their shingle recycling operation; DOT requirements; and stockpile of material, and difficulty in getting asphalt companies to take the material,” the company stated in its online sustainability report.
Executives at Blackfoot Landfill agree with that assessment. The landfill has a state permit to recycle shingles in the southwest part of Indiana but stopped recycling due to unfavorable conditions.
“We’re not accepting any right now because there’s no market for it,” said Derrick McVaigh, the company’s industrial account manager. “Most asphalt companies are maxed out and they’ve got [RAS] stockpiled, so it’s tough right now. It’s unfortunate, but it’s all just going to landfill.”
While demand for recycled shingles has plummeted, Willis says he believes the trend has stabilized and interest is now picking back up.
Annual surveys conducted by NAPA show paving companies used 51,400 tons of recycled shingles in asphalt paving mixtures in 2019 – nearly double the 26,400 tons of recycled shingles used the year before. Confidence in RAS appears to be improving, largely due to recent studies that show asphalt made with recycled shingles can be very durable when it is made correctly with appropriate levels of recycled materials.
“Most of those studies came back and show that you can make this work and you can get these to perform,” Willis told 13News. “I know there are numerous contractors who have figured out how to use them effectively. Ultimately, for the [asphalt] contractors, we tell them to do their homework. It’s a business decision.”
For now, that decision does not favor recycling in most parts of the state.
When it comes to the millions of pounds of asphalt shingles removed from Indiana homes every year, most roofing companies, contractors and consumers are left with only one option: landfill.
South Side Landfill in Indianapolis – one of 39 landfills across the state that are allowed to bury scrap shingles – says it is segregating its mountains of roofing material from other trash. It hopes one day, if the shingles are again in high demand, they can be mined out of the landfill and still recycled.
“We’d like those to be recycled eventually,” Harris said. “It’s a lot of shingles, and we hope someone will be able to use them.”
Companies and Organizations Respond:
In response to this report, Owens Corning spokesman Matt Shroder provided 13News with the following statement:
“The current state of shingle recycling is disappointing, and, as noted in our most recent Sustainability Report, we are facing into this and making significant investments to reverse that unfortunate reality. Specific to the recycling pledge, there are practical limitations in our pledge, including availability of recycling drop off points. Unfortunately, there were many more options available several years ago than there are today. Owens Corning is committed and actively investing in collaborations to bring more options back online. We’re also committed to keeping our recycling information current online for the benefit of shingle contractors and homeowners.”
He also told WTHR that the company’s web team would review how it displays shingle recycling pledge information on its website to ensure customers do not see misleading information. “We want to have information for people that is clear and real,” Shroder said.
A few days after 13News published this report, Owens Corning changed its online pledge. Instead of stating that its participating contractors promise “that your old shingles won’t end up in a landfill,” the company’s website now informs consumers: “When you choose a contractor who has taken the pledge, you get a contractor who cares about sustainability and is committed to recycle your old shingles if it is a viable option in your area.”
13News also contacted J.H. Rudolph & Co to discuss its ongoing use of recycled asphalt shingles in asphalt paving projects. A company spokeswoman declined to comment, instead referring us to the Asphalt Paving Association of Indiana.
APAI executive director Kirsten Fowler told 13News: “Shingles have been something our industry is still sorting through. There’s still a lot of studies taking place on whether asphalt shingles add value to asphalt mixes and whether they impact quality… We’re not wanting to provide any position on shingles that’s either good or bad.”