Recycling to the MAX

Story by Larry Trojak | September 28, 2010

In light of the high profile projects that have garnered headlines recently based solely on their cost overruns (Boston's "Big Dig" and the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., come to mind), it's refreshing to hear of a contractor who not only works hard to keep costs down but also passes those savings on to his customers. But then Mike Leboki is not your stereotypical contractor.

The founder and owner of Vancouver, Wash.-based Construction Materials Exchange has an extensive background in trucking — both driving and company ownership — and knows the implications of costs running amok. It should come as no surprise then, that on a material removal and recycling project for the city of Portland's MAX Light Rail extension, he has combined equipment productivity with logistics to improve efficiency on one phase of that project. The logistics centers on the location of a materials recycling yard, the equipment involves a full compliment of crushing and screening equipment from local manufacturer Construction Equipment Co. (Tualatin, Ore.), and the net result is a significant savings to Portland and its taxpayers.

Part of an overall 8.3-mile Green Line extension of Portland's MAX Light Rail System, the Portland Mall phase is centered on 5th and 6th Streets in downtown. Despite its size, the project is being done with minimal disruption to business and pedestrian access. To do so, TriMet, the regional transit agency, has crews working in three- to four-block segments for up to eight weeks, then moving to the next work zone.

"At the Mall itself, all the sidewalks, planters, concrete, and brick are being removed to make way for the new rail line," said CME's Leboki. "However, initial plans called for material to be removed and hauled off to a C&D debris landfill. While good in theory, in reality it could have made the job a nightmare."

Leboki's reluctance to the city's plan was based on the fact that the destination landfill is located several miles across town, which would have meant long trips with large trucks straight through one of the busiest parts of the city. To him, that just didn't make a lot of sense, so he offered the city of Portland an alternative.

Shorten the Trip, Reap the Benefits

That alternative involved setting up a portable crushing and screening plant on a 2.5-acre site directly across the river from the Mall — less than a mile's drive from point to point. Material would be hauled to the plant, crushed, screened to an appropriate size and returned back to its original location. The city agreed, and Leboki began setting up his crushing/screening spread on a waterfront property behind the Rose Garden Arena.

"We are taking the debris from the Mall site and processing it, first in a CEC Roadrunner 133 X152 crushing plant, then sending it on for screening in a CEC 6 X 16 triple-deck screen," Leboki said. "The end product is a city of Portland-approved, 1-inch minus spec rock which is then taken back to the site and used as underlayment for the new rail line."

In addition to reducing the distance material is now hauled, he added, there are a number of other benefits the alternative recycling yard offers.

"Because this is now a short haul, we can use smaller trucks — and fewer of them — which reduce emissions within the city," he explained. "Also, one of the original options put forth by the city called for the debris to be hauled off to a landfill, new material to be purchased, and that replacement material hauled back into the city. Doing it the way we are now eliminates the landfill tipping fees, the round-trip hauling charges, the added pollution, and the cost of purchasing new aggregate. And while this seemed like a great idea when we first presented it, it has become even more so as fuel prices and aggregate prices have soared."

Local Connection

The success of CME's operation with the light rail project is predicated on steady, reliable performance from the processing equipment; Leboki said his reliance upon CEC for its crushers and screens plays into that well.

"I'm relatively new to the crushing business, but I've used CEC almost exclusively since I started," he said. "I like the fact that they are local and I'm assured of reliable parts availability. Many of the other crushers in use today are made in Europe or Asia, so replacement parts have to either be shipped from overseas or from a distributor in another part of this country. To make a long story short: that's downtime I don't need."

Leboki added that because CEC is local, someone is always available in the event they have a pressing need. On one occasion, he recalled, they were involved in a night job and needed something on the spot.

"I called Gary Smith, CEC's sales manager, at home and he was on his way to the shop for the part in no time flat. You can't put a price on that kind of service."

Truth be told, Leboki's connection with CEC goes much further than just being their customer. It was the equipment company, in fact, that first got him into the crushing business. The two parties met at an auction dinner where they discussed Leboki's operation: hauling dirt and strippings for other customers.

"They told me if I had a screen plant of my own, I could be creating my own products rather than hauling material to someone else's yard and having them pocket the profit," Leboki recalled. "That made sense to me and literally the next day I was the proud owner of a used screen plant. I purchased a 10-acre site in Vancouver and was screening material there when, a few weeks later, they called me to say they had a deal on a perfect used crushing plant to complement my screens. Again, it made sense and I was on my way."

Adding to the Success

That chance meeting was in 2005, and in the relatively short time since, CME has become one of the Northwest's major contract crushing and material recycling companies. Leboki said his past experience helped to fuel that growth.

"I have definitely benefited from my 10 years of trucking and the built-in customer base it offered," he explained. "For every one of these contractors, I had trucked their material into other recycle plants — now I was hauling it to my own yard. Then, once I got into full swing, I was also able to promote the portable crushing and screening aspect of my business."

With the ability to take his operation on the road, Leboki could now offer his customers a good economic alternative to the way things had always been done. That previous scenario usually involved a customer paying him $95 an hour to haul material off, then buying material from a local aggregate supplier and paying him again to haul it back to the job.

"Now, I could simply bring in a plant and manufacture approved material right on site," he said. "So what might have been an $80,000 process could now be done for something closer to $45,000 or so. They could still make their profit, pass the savings along to their customer and, in turn, become more competitive in their bids. Obviously that struck a chord with them and, though it's not always feasible to do so, it's become a huge part of our business."

Back in Portland, CME has been making steady progress with the Mall Light Rail project. By project's end (it is roughly an 18-month phase), the company will have processed and reused more than 80,000 tons of material. Savings have already been substantial enough for the project's contractor, Stacy and Witbeck, to issue a credit back to the city. And, based on the benefits they've provided, CME has also been brought in to do similar work on the southern portion of the project in Clackamas County.

"We think that recycling material from projects like these will continue to grow as time goes on," Leboki said. "Given the rising cost of fuel and an equally steep rise in the price of new aggregate material — it has doubled in less than four years — it just makes good financial sense. From a personal standpoint, I never thought I'd be where I am in such a short period of time. But I've been fortunate to have had good contacts from my trucking business; reliable, productive equipment in all of our CEC components; and an excellent workforce to put it all together. I can't wait to see what the next few years will bring."