Looney Bins Inc./ Downtown Diversion Inc.

Founded: 1989
Core Business: Recycling construction debris and other material
Employees in 2007: 150
Employees in 2006: 135
Goal: To recycle a large percentage of construction debris, movie set material and general waste to keep it out of landfills
Driving Force: Environmental concerns and programs and requirements that encourage recycling

From drywall to dirt to couches to cardboard, if it's thrown into one of Looney Bins' trademark orange dumpsters, the company will probably recycle it.

Sun Valley recycling company Looney Bins Inc. has built a reputation on accepting, sorting and recycling just about anything tossed into its bins, and with its sister company, Downtown Diversion Inc., has a certified recycling rate of over 75 percent higher than most any other recycler in the business.

The company started nearly two decades ago as a demolition contractor, but over time it became clear that much of the waste from demolition could be recycled, said Mike Hammer, the company's president and chief executive. Few companies at the time were in the business of recycling such debris, and the company soon gained recognition within the industry.

"We became known for being able to handle large construction and demolition jobs," Hammer said. "Today we process over 1,500 tons per day of construction and demolition debris."

And its reach is growing. Looney Bins began recycling movie sets and is increasingly being used by small contractors, supermarkets and private residences.

Today, one of the company's largest clients is Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., whose Culver City studio has been recycling its sets for the past decade.

"They provide excellent service," said Bruce Ferency, grounds foreman for Sony Studios.

He said some other recyclers say they recycle movie sets, but Looney Bins is the only one he knows of that does so on a large scale.

And since the studio started using the service 10 years ago, it has diverted a huge amount of debris from landfills. Looney Bins has recovered thousands of tons of wood from the Sony studio alone.

"Before that, it would just go into the dumpsters and then to the landfills," Ferency said.

Movie set recycling has been highly successful for the company: As much as 90 percent of the material recovered from movie sets is recycled, the company estimates.

And it is being reused in some surprising ways.

Wood recovered by Looney Bins has been used in the Special Olympics and for making planter boxes for area nurseries, while nails and related building materials have been used in foreign countries to make hospitals and other structures.

The success of the non-construction recycling services, coupled with the growth of the "green" movement, has helped the company grow despite a decline in a main source of its revenue residential construction.

"The overall construction industry is dropping but there is an overall green movement that is pushing for more recycling, so that has increased our market share," Hammer said.

The company offers bins as small as 3 cubic yards and as large as 40 yards. Prices range from about $200 per week to nearly $500 per week in Los Angeles depending on location. The company charges between $40 and $50 per ton of material dropped off at its facilities, which is more expensive than dumping loads at landfills, which often is between $30 and $40.

Cities and counties are required to divert half of their waste from landfills, but private contractors do not have such restrictions. However, contractors who do recycle their debris may be eligible for green building certification programs, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or the Collaborative for High Performance Schools programs.

The companies have been growing by a combined rate of about 30 percent annually for the past four years. The companies combined for more than $20 million in revenue in 2006. (With the same president and chief executive, Looney Bins and Downtown Diversion are effectively divisions of a single company.)

With the residential construction industry down, Downtown Diversion has been helped by the building boom in downtown recently.

There is still a large share of the market up for grabs for recyclers. The Construction Materials Recycling Association estimates that 350 million tons of construction and demolition material is generated every year, of which only 28 million tons 8 percent is recycled.

Sorting Debris

Once the filled bins are brought to the company's downtown recycling facility, the sorting process begins. It's a mix of high- and low-tech.

The bins are delivered to the facility and dumped. The material is loaded into a machine and "through a series of screens and conveyor belts, magnets and air systems, the material is sized and spread out," Hammer said.

At this point, the material is inspected visually and employees are responsible for picking out different types of material. Some wood, dirt and other debris is ground into mulch, while other types of material is shipped off to other facilities for processing. Anything that is left over is delivered to landfills.

The company will accept a wide variety of material, but won't take hazardous material or food waste.

William Turley, executive director of the Construction Materials Recycling Association, said the company is well-positioned to grow in the recycling industry due to its new technical capabilities.

"They started out with low mechanization but now they have a beautiful state-of-the-art facility in a great location," he said. "They can do more tons and sort more completely and thoroughly than previous techniques allowed."

The company opened a facility just east of downtown in 2004, becoming one of the few major recycling companies to set up shop in the middle of a large city.

But having a recycling facility in the middle of the city presents its own problems, Hammer said. To prevent unpleasant odors and a negative environmental impact, it is a closed facility with extensive misting and ventilation systems to make it bearable for the workers inside.

"It's a fully enclosed facility. We can run full speed and you can stand right outside the facility and the only thing you'll see is trucks going in and out," Hammer said.

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