PORTLAND — An excavator sits atop a large pile of crumbled drywall at a North Portland warehouse, where Casey Lane, president of Urban Gypsum, explains how the rubbish is actually a valuable commodity for farmers looking to grow healthier crops.
Rather than sending wallboard to the landfill, Urban Gypsum is reaching out to local building contractors to bring the material into its 75,000-square-foot facility, where it is processed into a flour-like powder consisting of nearly 100 percent recycled gypsum for agricultural and industrial uses.
Gypsum, a soft mineral composed of calcium sulfate, is a widely used fertilizer that provides plant nutrition while improving aeration in compact soils, allowing better drainage and deeper root penetration.
It is also the primary ingredient in drywall, of which 15 million tons is currently sitting in landfills across the U.S., Europe and Asia.
Lane is familiar with the struggle. Urban Gypsum is just one division of Willamette Construction Services Inc., which includes general contracting and demolition. Lane figures the company was spending upwards of $500,000 a year hauling heavy drywall to the dump.
Not only does weight at the landfill equal dollars, but Lane said a potentially lucrative business opportunity was slipping through their fingers.
“To turn our garbage into a commodity, and to turn our waste stream into a reusable (product), really was the key,” Lane said.
It was Lane’s parents, Jerry and Bonnie, who established the family’s first business, Lane Concrete Cutting, in 1977. From there, they began to diversify, adding demolition services in 1994 and branching further out across multiple divisions.
Willamette Construction Services now includes Laneco, which does demolition, concrete cutting, underground utilities and excavation; GDSI, which handles demolition and asbestos abatement; JDL General Contracting; and Urban Gypsum, a single-source drywall recycling center.
The company moved into its new building in 2018, with more than 10 times the space of its former location in Portland. After just a few months, Lane is already envisioning nationwide expansion.
“We expect to open multiple facilities around the U.S.,” he said.
The patent is pending for the recycling process at Urban Gypsum, but in essence drywall is run through machinery that separates the gypsum from the paper backing and collects the resulting powder in large bags. The paper is also collected and can be used to make products such as animal bedding and packaging, making the process zero waste.
Urban Gypsum has a fleet of trucks and Dumpsters that can haul drywall directly from the construction site to its facility, ensuring material bypasses the landfill. Lane said the product is rigorously inspected, and companies that send loads must fill out a survey to ensure the gypsum meets a minimum purity of 99.3 percent.
“We can categorically say that we have done all of our proper testing and planning before one load even enters this facility,” Lane said.
Scott Freeman, operations manager at Urban Gypsum, said it took months of planning and working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Metro, which covers land use and development across the Portland metro area, to get the recycling center permitted.
“It’s something they’ve been wanting for a long time,” Freeman said. “This has been tried before and failed by other companies.”
Urban Gypsum has a full-time agronomist, Wade Schirmer, on staff reaching out to agricultural suppliers who have expressed interest in carrying the product. Gypsum is 150 to 200 times more soluble than lime, Schirmer said, and its aeration properties could be especially useful in the wet, heavy soils of the Willamette Valley.
“The growers have a real keen interest,” Schirmer said. “Just getting them trained, it actually has the potential to displace significant other products as a plant food.”
By capturing gypsum from local drywall scraps, Schirmer added the company can provide a much more cost effective supply of product, as opposed to buying and shipping it from mines in Nevada, Utah and Canada. He said the added freight makes gypsum twice as expensive from those sources as it would be from their company.
“It’s a rather inexpensive product, but the handling and trucking makes it cost prohibitive,” he said.
Tom Wimmer, chief operating officer at Marion Ag Service in St. Paul, Ore., says they have had conversations with Urban Gypsum since the new drywall recycling center opened. While there have not yet been any field tests between Urban Gypsum and Marion Ag Service, Wimmer said he does believe there could be a profitable market.
“There is a lot of benefit for that, to help build the soil integrity,” he said. “I think the market is there, if you have a readily available source.”
At full capacity, Urban Gypsum will create up to 140,000 tons of gypsum powder annually. Lane said the goal is to get to full production, and envisions opening a second facility within the next year.
“We have turned a lot of heads and gained a lot of attention in a very positive way,” he said. “This will be a nationwide product.”