Building a future with construction waste

Avi Golen (left) and Jon Wybar own Re­volu­tion Re­cov­ery, a con­struc­tion ma­ter­i­al re­cyc­ling plant. Be­low, work­ers sort re­cyc­lable debris. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

In a time of re­ces­sion, or per­haps de­pres­sion, Avi Golen and Jon Wybar are hir­ing.

And in a time of con­sumer waste and over­flow­ing land­fills — along with pos­sible glob­al warm­ing — Golen and Wybar are re­cyc­ling.

These are just a couple of the an­om­alies that the two self-de­scribed con­struc­tion in­dustry out­siders have cre­ated in North­east Phil­adelphia’s Ta­cony sec­tion with their grow­ing com­pany, Re­volu­tion Re­cov­ery.

Sev­en years ago, Golen and Wybar — who met in the mid-1990s as stu­dents at the Wil­li­am Penn Charter School — partnered with the idea of re­cyc­ling old and leftover build­ing ma­ter­i­als from de­moli­tion and con­struc­tion sites. Two years later, they moved their mom-and-pop-sized op­er­a­tion in­to a 4,000-square-foot yard in South­w­est Phil­adelphia.

Thanks to steady growth, they moved in 2008 in­to a re­cently va­cated in­dus­tri­al site at 7333 Mil­nor St.

Today, Re­volu­tion Re­cov­ery col­lects about 200 tons of un­wanted mixed build­ing ma­ter­i­als daily. The waste in­cludes dry­wall, wood, ma­sonry, card­board, metals and oth­er ma­ter­i­als.


Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the ton­nage likely would end up in a land­fill. But Golen and Wybar di­vert about 80 per­cent of it for re­use and, in the pro­cess, have cre­ated their own sus­tain­able and po­ten­tially prof­it­able busi­ness ven­ture.

For now, most of the profits are be­ing re­in­ves­ted in the com­pany. The founders de­clined to dis­cuss spe­cif­ic fin­an­cial fig­ures for this art­icle.

“We had no know-how, no cus­tom­ers and no ex­per­i­ence, which really was a bless­ing,” Wybar said, re­call­ing the earli­est days of the com­pany.

“Had we had any ex­per­i­ence or know-how, we would’ve said, ‘No, we can’t do it.’ But we took a fresh look be­ing so naïve.”

“Our whole busi­ness is di­vert­ing waste from the land­fills, wheth­er it comes from a big com­pany, a private homeown­er or a small con­tract­or,” Golen said.

Though the in­spir­a­tion for the concept came much earli­er, the nex­us of their part­ner­ship formed per­haps not co­in­cid­ent­ally one day in 2004 dur­ing a moun­tain bike ride through Wis­sahick­on Val­ley Park in the city’s North­w­est sec­tion.

Golen had gradu­ated from the Uni­versity of Col­or­ado at Boulder with a mar­ket­ing and ad­vert­ising de­gree and was work­ing as a truck driver, haul­ing waste from build­ing sites dur­ing the height of the home-con­struc­tion boom.

He saw con­tract­ors pay­ing ex­or­bit­ant amounts of cash, gen­er­ally without a second thought, to dis­pose of count­less tons of un­used build­ing ma­ter­i­als along with equally waste­ful wood-frame and card­board pack­aging.

Con­tract­ors would buy ma­ter­i­al, such as dry­wall and lum­ber, in bulk. Any rem­nants went in­to the trash trail­ers.


“There was a lot of good ma­ter­i­al left,” Golen said. “I saw all of this clean wood, clean card­board and clean dry­wall. I knew it was a com­mod­ity.”

At the time, dif­fer­ent re­cyc­ling com­pan­ies would take dif­fer­ent ma­ter­i­als and pay for them. But con­tract­ors couldn’t be bothered to sort and de­liv­er it all to vari­ous loc­a­tions.

Mean­while, Wybar was wrap­ping up a stint with an en­vir­on­ment­al com­pany work­ing on the World Trade Cen­ter cleanup. He had gradu­ated with a geo­logy de­gree from the Uni­versity of Texas at Aus­tin. He was do­ing in­door air test­ing.

Golen pitched the part­ner­ship dur­ing the bike ride. Wybar par­ted ways with his em­ploy­er and joined his old high school pal.

It was a two-man out­fit from the start. They col­lec­ted, hand-sor­ted, trans­por­ted and sold everything per­son­ally. One of the biggest chal­lenges was con­vin­cing con­tract­ors to buy in­to their concept.

Con­struc­tion folks usu­ally drive a hard bar­gain and are largely res­ist­ant to change. The en­vir­on­ment­al angle doesn’t of­ten work without a fin­an­cial one.

“We found that we very much have to com­pete on tra­di­tion­al prices and ser­vices,” Golen said.

For­tu­nately, the part­ners found plenty of wiggle room in the rates that con­tract­ors already were pay­ing for waste re­mov­al. Be­sides that, Golen already had a big ac­count lined up.

Swarth­more Col­lege was build­ing new dorms at the time. In what they de­scribed as a pi­lot pro­ject, Golen and Wybar agreed to take leftover dry­wall from con­struc­tion and pro­cess it for re­use in an on-cam­pus ar­bor­etum. Dry­wall con­tains the min­er­al gypsum, which also can be used as a fer­til­izer and soil con­di­tion­er.


Based on their work at Swarth­more, the part­ners earned Pennsylvania De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion cer­ti­fic­a­tion for their pro­cess, which gave them ad­di­tion­al lever­age with oth­er con­tract­ors, par­tic­u­larly those seek­ing LEED cer­ti­fic­a­tion for their own con­struc­tion pro­jects.

Cre­ated by the U.S. Green Build­ing Coun­cil, LEED cer­ti­fic­a­tion re­cog­nizes Lead­er­ship in En­ergy and En­vir­on­ment­al Design. Fed­er­al, state and loc­al gov­ern­ments of­fer fin­an­cial in­cent­ives for LEED-cer­ti­fied con­struc­tion pro­jects.

De­velopers can get cred­it for di­vert­ing a por­tion of their con­struc­tion waste in­to re­cyc­ling.

Since the Swarth­more job, Golen and Wybar have sold more pro­cessed dry­wall to a Salem County, N.J., com­pany that uses it to make floor­ing products.

Re­volu­tion Re­cov­ery has in­nov­ated in oth­er ways. Ini­tially, cli­ent con­tract­ors can save money by sort­ing waste by type on the job site. But if that’s not feas­ible, Golen and Wybar of­fer single-stream­ing, where their com­pany does the sort­ing in their 3.5-acre Mil­nor Street yard.

Much of the sort­ing is auto­mated via con­vey­or belts, mag­nets and oth­er ma­chinery, but some of it must still be done by hand. The com­pany has about 37 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing those in the yard and in ex­ec­ut­ive of­fices.

Sev­er­al factors make the founders think that de­mand for their ser­vices will only rise.

With res­id­en­tial con­struc­tion boom­ing in In­dia and China, Golen fig­ures that the prices of raw con­struc­tion ma­ter­i­als world­wide are bound to es­cal­ate. The mar­ket has already seen the value of cop­per tubing skyrock­et, he notes.

Fur­ther, do­mest­ic con­struc­tion will re­bound even­tu­ally, res­ult­ing in a lot more con­struc­tion waste avail­able for dis­pos­al and re­cyc­ling.

And even if one area of the re­cyc­ling mar­ket tanks — for in­stance, if the price of cop­per plum­mets — the part­ners feel that they have enough di­versity to with­stand fluc­tu­ations. They’re already work­ing to ex­pand in­to the fiber­glass, Styro­foam and car­pet­ing mar­kets, among oth­ers.

One po­ten­tial threat to their mod­el would be com­pet­i­tion from ma­jor waste com­pan­ies like Waste Man­age­ment. What Re­volu­tion Re­cov­ery is do­ing is no secret to con­glom­er­ates.

“The big waste com­pan­ies know what’s go­ing on, and they’ll fig­ure it out,” Wybar said. “But big ships are hard to turn. We got out ahead, and we want to stay ahead. We’ve been in­nov­at­ive. While they’re fig­ur­ing out (how to handle) wood and dry­wall, we’re mov­ing in­to fiber­glass.” ••

Vis­it­volu­tion­re­cov­ for more in­form­a­tion about Re­volu­tion Re­cov­ery.

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