Closed Air Force Bases Open for Green Business: Recycling on a grand scale

  • Published
  • By Susan Wolbarst
  • Air Force Real Property Agency Public Affairs
Whether it's small as a cell phone or big as a 5,000-acre Air Force base, it can be recycled.

J.D. Wang, CEO of a company called reRubber, believes we can recycle anything if we put our minds to it. So it seems fitting that his tire-recycling company is expanding into a recycled building - once the commissary at the former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.

In Sacramento, a former Mather Air Force Base storage building now houses mountains of unwanted electronics, all waiting to be recycled by California Electronic Asset Recovery.

And at the former George Air Force Base, an antiquated Boeing 737 is being dismantled for parts by the Aircraft Recycling Corp. "About 70-80% of an aircraft is recyclable materials," according to Doug Scroggins, managing director of ARC.

It's been said we're in the middle of a recycling revolution, with people paying more attention to conserving resources by using them more than once, often for a new purpose, rather than tossing them into landfills.

This is certainly true at closed Air Force bases. Since the 1980s, 40 former bases across the country have closed as a result of Base Realignment and Closure. The Air Force Real Property Agency has overseen cleanup and property transfer at these bases. To date, more than 76,000 acres of surplus Air Force property has been conveyed to the public, re-purposing military runways, buildings and other infrastructure to strengthen local economies with jobs and commerce.

Many recycling businesses have gravitated to the large, inexpensive industrial sites available at these rambling former Air Force bases, which now house factories recycling everything from toasters to paint.

Wang, CEO of reRubber, says tires in the U.S. are scrapped at a rate of about 300 million per year. Worn tires are a nuisance; they don't decompose and they take up a lot of space, he says. His company, headquartered in Ontario, Calif., recycles 100 percent of each tire, removing steel components and processing the rubber into crumbs or powder. Crumbs are shipped to manufacturers in one-ton bags, to be made into products like gym or playground floors.

The new ReRubber factory in the former Norton commissary will convert powdered rubber into various sealant and coating products for roofs, garage floors, driveways, and as a puncture preventive in tires. The recycled rubber products are water-based, with no volatile organic compound fumes to pollute the air. Rubber coatings can be used to protect truck beds and to guard infrastructure against rust, Wang said. A rubber auto undercarriage coating to protect against corrosion from salted roads is currently being tested, as is a coating for bridges.

Eventually, 120 employees will work at ReRubber's San Bernardino factory, where tires will also be converted to powder, a process currently taking place at another facility. "We have something really unique and exciting," Wang said. He hopes to attract more recycling-based businesses to the former Norton, creating what he calls "a sustainable recycling hub."

Jerry Noel, a painting contractor for 27 years, now runs Visions Recycling, Inc. recycling latex paint out of what was once a shipping and receiving facility at the closed McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.

"Approximately 800 million gallons of paint is produced for consumption in the U.S. annually," Noel says, estimating that 10 percent of it, or 80 million gallons per year, is leftover or unwanted. Because it cannot legally be dumped in California landfills, it tends to accumulate. "The average homeowner has between 3.2 and 3.6 gallons of paint in their garage per year that they've owned their home," he says.

Noel receives leftover paints from the state's Household Hazardous Waste sites, then sorts, mixes and filters them, recycling the containers. His Visions recycled interior and exterior paint is sold by paint and hardware outlets. "We make any color," he says. Visions also designs products for particular uses, such as a gray paint with epoxy resin which Cal-Trans uses to paint rocks, and a labor-saving product called Envirotex containing recycled glass beads which acts as a primer, texture and paint in one application. The latter retails for $15 a gallon.

Unlike recycled paper products, recycled paint is much cheaper than new paint, and Noel says it is not inferior in any way. He guarantees it will not clog paint sprayers. On the environmental news section of his website, he provides a link to a video of Paris Hilton painting over graffiti as part of required community service, drawing attention to how well one coat covers the graffiti.

"The idea that we're above using something again has got to change," Noel says. He sold 140,000 gallons of recycled paint, both domestically and internationally, in 2011. He has 18 employees. He makes additional products such as a cement additive out of dried paint.

He helped shape a California paint stewardship law which will take effect in late 2012, charging consumers more for paint at the point of sale, similar to the way consumers pay extra for cans and bottles when they buy beverages. This will shift the cost of keeping paint out of landfills (currently $38 million annually in California) from taxpayers to paint consumers. Hundreds of retailers will accept leftover paint for recycling when the law kicks in, Noel said. Oregon, Canada and many European countries have such programs now.

Across town in a massive storage building at the former Mather Air Force Base, mountains of toasters, vacuum cleaners, crock pots, hairdryers and every other small appliance await their turn in the Big Green Machine at California Electronic Asset Recovery. "We started in 2000. We're one of the oldest e-waste recyclers in the state," says Kristin DiLallo Sherrill, CEAR's director of marketing and new business.

Additional mountainous piles include computers, televisions, cell phones and other gadgets which move from coveted technology to e-waste in constantly shortening life cycles. Like latex paint, e-waste is forbidden from landfills in California. Twenty-four other states have legislation in place or pending to prevent e-waste from entering landfills.

CEAR gets e-waste from three main sources: government (landfills and other collection points), business, and the community. CEAR partners with Keep California Beautiful and McDonald's and supports fund-raisers for schools and other nonprofits. Such events can be educational as well as profitable, Sherrill said, as groups are paid for the e-waste they collect.

No one knows for sure how much e-waste lurks in U.S. basements and garages, but the Environmental Protection Agency has reported that e-waste is the fast growing waste stream in the country. CEAR's volume grew by 30 percent in 2011 to approximately 22 million pounds of recycled e-waste.

In 2010, the company invested in what they call the "Big Green Machine" from Germany which dismantles copiers, printers and other unwanted machines by spinning them rapidly. The company is the only one in the U.S. with this technology, which uses a third less energy than the shredding technologies deployed by other recyclers.

Pieces are sorted into categories such as copper, aluminum, plastic, stainless steel, or circuit boards and piled into 1000-pound burlap bags, sold to approved recyclers, and sent off to be melted or smelted.

TVs and CRTs have to be dismantled by hand because of lead and mercury in the products which can't be released into the air. Hard drives from computers are destroyed to protect security. CEAR has about 70 employees and will be expanding into an additional building at the former Mather AFB.

Near Southern California's Victorville, Doug Scroggins of Aircraft Recycling Corporation dismantles as many as 30 aircraft a year at the former George Air Force Base. It takes about four weeks to tear down a small aircraft (40-45,000 pounds) and another week to clean it up and prepare it for demolition. For a wide-body (250,000 pounds), three additional weeks are needed.

Scroggins said a current industry slowdown has reduced business to about one to two planes a month. He predicts a turnaround, with more business by mid to late summer, 2012. ARC owns and stores 17 planes at the capacious former George. He can bring one of them in for dismantling whenever they need something to do.

The work is done on an environmentally safe concrete pad he built specifically for the job at a cost of over $1 million, Scroggins said. "There's a lot of hazardous waste on these airplanes," he noted, and the pad is designed to contain spilled fuel and other contaminants.

ARC works primarily on Boeing aircraft: 737s, 757s, and 767s. "We're in the parts business, too. We make the bulk of our money in parts," he said.

When he's not working with the teardown operation, or at company headquarters in Las Vegas, Scroggins uses his expertise in the aircraft storage and scrapping industry working as a writer and in the film business. Proceeds from his 2011 book, Junkyard Jets, help support the American Museum of Aviation in Las Vegas. "Scrapping Aircraft Giants," a film he produced for the Discovery Channel in 2002, shows the process of reducing multi-million dollar aircraft to a pile of rubble and discusses where the parts end up. He also consults with the film and TV industries. Sometimes, he can provide exactly what they need. Otherwise, he can help them create it, whether it's a vintage aircraft cockpit or a crash scene.

As the spacious buildings on former Air Force bases around California are recycled into various commercial uses, entrepreneurs are attracted to their inexpensive leases, low-density environments and expansive parking. This infrastructure is helping idealistic business people convert trash into profits while reducing landfill waste.