Identifying the environmental liabilities embedded in real property is the goal of environmental site assessments. For obvious reasons, the purchaser (and their lender) would prefer to have this settled before any transaction takes place. With environmental remediation often coming at such a high price, ignorance of environmental liabilities can easily make the difference between a mutually beneficial deal and a financial disaster for one party. While these assessments typically evaluate contamination of soil and groundwater and the presence of leaking drums and underground tanks, they often ignore building materials that could contain polychlorinated biphenyls (also known as PCBs). Is this an oversight? And if it is, how serious is it?

Got PCBs?

PCBs were used in a wide variety of building materials prior to their ban in the 1970s. While this is hard for us to fully comprehend today, PCBs were one of the “miracle chemicals” of their day, as a result they were added to many, many products; this was the era of “better living through chemistry”.

The best known uses of PCBs in building materials were in caulk and paint, but PCBs are just as likely to be found in adhesives, floor finishes and concrete form release oils – to name a just a few applications. There aren’t any good statistics on this, but odds are that a building built before 1980 has a 50% chance of containing PCBs; whether its use is institutional, commercial or residential.

There’s only one way to know for sure whether a building has PCBs, and that’s to collect samples and test them. But there’s a big problem with this simple approach, testing a building for PCBs is opening Pandora’s Box; an innocent act that risks lots of unintended consequences. While there’s no requirement to test building materials for PCBs, this often well intentioned act can trigger a cascade of PCB liabilities. Testing building materials for PCBs is often compared to playing Russian roulette.

What’s the Downside?

Until the last decade, the question of PCBs in buildings was largely academic, but that’s changing fast as experience shows PCB remediation costs are too high to ignore. The change is due to USEPA’s shifting policy towards PCB enforcement.

When the first PCB regulations were issued in 1978-79, they contained a provision known as the “in-service rule” that permitted the continued use of existing PCBs in building materials; no new PCB building materials could be added, but the existing stock was grandfathered–in. But, when EPA rewrote the PCB regulations in 1998, they quietly eliminated the in-service rule. The result was that all the PCB caulk, paint and window glazing in hundreds of thousands of buildings was suddenly outlawed. This change was not made because EPA determined that PCBs in building materials were dangerous, in fact it was made for reasons completely unrelated to PCBs in buildings.

Although there is no requirement for testing, once an owner determines that a building contains PCBs the only lawful option is to remove them. But taking PCBs out of a building is no easy task; over decades PCBs slowly move out of the caulk or paint where they started and into abutting concrete, brick or wall board. Removing PCBs from these abutting materials has proven to be much more expensive than removing the caulk or paint itself.

On top of the direct PCB removal costs it would be wise to also consider  EPA’s extra-regulatory requirements, such as the confirmation of cleanup effectiveness through air testing; total project costs quickly become unpredictable. What might have started as an expensive but manageable $100,000 cleanup can readily grow to an unmanageable multimillion dollar cleanup, with no end to the costs in sight. Abandoning otherwise useful buildings can become the only option.

Location, Location, Location

As the old saying goes, when it comes to real estate,  nothing is more important than location; as it turns out this is true of the PCB regulations too. At least for now, EPA’s PCB enforcement program is not implemented consistently across the country. Program implementation is in the hands of the 10 EPA Regional Offices, and each of these sets its own priorities. So while PCBs in building materials are a hot topic with EPA in New England, they are rarely discussed in the Southeast (just one example).

What to do?

If you own or are responsible for a building that may contain PCBs, at some point you will need guidance on what your options are. If the only advice you are receiving is from people telling you that you need to test the materials, consider whether it’s time to find a new adviser. There are other alternatives besides testing. And even if testing is your best (or only) option, you should go into it with your eyes open, aware of the potential risks and possible strategies to reduce those risks.

Where Does The Garbage Go?

I looked into the refrigerator last week and couldn’t help but make a mental inventory of the fridge contents in the wake of Thanksgiving. We had the cranberry chutney that nobody but me liked, the sweet potatoes that time forgot, and three kinds of leftover turkey. I was pretty sure I’m wasn’t going to get around to eating all of it (wow, that’s a ‘first world problem’ if ever there was one).

It’s not just me. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study concluded that on average, Americans eventually throw out about 40% of the food bought and sold in the US, whether from being unsalable, damaged in transit, or after sitting forlorn in refrigerators. “Consumer losses,” or food that goes unused at homes, restaurants, and other dining places accounts for the majority of food waste. That is an enormous amount, both in terms of financial cost and as an amount of material to be handled as a waste.

It isn’t always apparent, but waste management– recycling or throwing away things on a large scale— has always been a major issue in human society. Archaeologists often locate the camps of ancient Neolithic tribes thanks to the enormous mounds of oyster shells and other refuse the ancient humans left behind. In the modern world, an entire industry has grown up around it. It even influences national government policy– most of our federal environmental laws were created to deal with material that was ‘thrown out’ as a waste in one form or another, whether as municipal solid waste (“garbage”), industrial wastewater, hazardous waste, or air pollutants exhausted out of a smokestack.


When I was about four years old, my parents gave me a children’s book named Where Does the Garbage Go? It seemed like a great question at the time, but then again some pretty basic things seem like great questions when you’re four. The part of the book that sticks in my head the most was the concept of separating one type of trash from another—in this case, separating the food waste that would be fed to pigs from broken plates that had to go to the dump. This was the very early 80s, way before recycling had become the fairly routine practice it has grown into. I saw the garbage trucks come to pick up the trash barrels at the end of our driveway every week, and I often rode in my dad’s van or my uncle’s pickup truck to various town dumps to drop off garbage, old wood or carpets, or whatever else we needed to get rid of. As fascinating as ‘grown up stuff’ like a dump was, I was never allowed to get out of the truck because of the rats that lived on the garbage. Still, the question of ‘where did the garbage go’ stuck with me.

Where, How Much, and What Color?

So where does the garbage go go in 2014?

Things have changed a lot since the early 80s, and they continue to change, with an increasing push towards recycling. In the 1990s there were about 150 landfills in Massachusetts, my home state, but as of December 2014, fewer than twenty landfills are still open in Massachusetts.

According to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP’s) 2013 Solid Waste Master Plan, 42% of the solid waste the state generated in 2009 was recycled, one of the highest recycling rates in the country. This amounts to about 5 million tons of waste, or the annual capacity of a dozen large landfills. The total amount of waste produced, including what was recycled, dropped over 17% between 2000 and 2009 (from 12,960,000 tons to 10,740,000 tons).

About 20% of this total is organic material, much of which is food waste. Massachusetts recently enacted a first-in-the-nation requirement that food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and other facilities that generate more than a ton of food waste per month be recycled –composted, used as animal food, or sent to a waste-to-energy facility rather than landfilled. This proposition received almost no opposition, and gathered almost universal support from municipalities, the solid waste industry, environmental NGOs, and business associations.  Massachusetts already requires that construction and demolition (C&D) waste, scrap metal, wood waste, tires, and recyclable cardboard and paper be recycled rather than landfilled.

Recycling Pays
The side benefits of this recycling are huge. By 2009, Massachusetts’ recycling efforts had:

  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1.8 million tons of carbon equivalent per year;
  • Saved 70 trillion BTUs of energy, equivalent to the annual energy consumption of more than 12 million barrels of oil or nearly 600 million gallons of gasoline; and
  • Avoided the use of 1.1 million tons of iron ore, coal, limestone and other natural resources. (via Environmental Benefits Calculator, Northeast Recycling Council, April 2009)
  • Supported an estimated 14,000 jobs worth on the order of $500 million in payroll. (U.S. Recycling Information Study, prepared for the Northeast Recycling Council, February 2009.

So for the long run, the question is not so much whether we can afford to keep recycling, as what it would cost us not to recycle.