In North America and around the world, the construction industry uses tremendous amounts of materials and has for years been one of the biggest generators of waste material. In fact, some estimates state building materials account for half of all solid waste generated worldwide…
While many of us think of scraps of wood, drywall, metal and other waste in landfills sites, the construction process affects the environment in a much broader way, from the extraction of raw materials used to create building products to their manufacturing, transportation, storage, delivery, installation and eventual disposal years later when a structure is demolished and replaced by a new one.
Thankfully, the worldwide construction sector is increasing its awareness of the disposal, recycling and reuse of building materials. To minimize both waste and carbon emissions resulting from trucks transporting waste products, some companies seek to reuse materials – such as broken concrete as an aggregate – on site or haul wood and other waste to sites nearby. Most construction companies are aware of green initiatives such as LEED certification and products which use fewer resources such as water and electricity during the building process, yet some still are unaware of the benefits to the bottom line, clients and the environment that come from implementing proper waste management strategies.
When it comes to construction, the use of materials worldwide is staggering. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the global construction sector consumes approximately thirty percent of raw materials, creates forty percent of atmospheric emissions and generates tremendous amounts of solid waste in the form of concrete, soil, steel, timber and rubble. When carbon emissions are added to these figures, the amount of waste is staggering, making the need for reduction, recycling and re-use a necessity.
A key issue remains diverting materials from the construction and demolition waste (CDW) stream. Across the planet, this remains a concern with groups such as the Environment Directorate General of the European Commission – which works to improve, preserve and protect Europe’s environment today and for future generations. Accounting for twenty-five to thirty percent of all waste generated in the European Union, construction materials are heavy and typically consist of concrete, glass, solvents, wood, metals, solvents, plastics, bricks and soil. Fortunately in Europe, as in North America, many of these construction and demolition waste materials can be recycled.
Identified as a “priority waste stream” by the European Union, construction and demolition waste (C&D) has tremendous potential for re-use, particularly as technology advances and methods for separation and recovery improve. Across Europe, the degree of success for material recovery and recycling varies considerably, from less than ten percent to over ninety percent and efforts are in place to increase the amount of recyclable and reusable material.
In terms of positive outcome, re-use and recycling of construction materials is good for the environment, fostering positive public opinion and the profitability. Depending on location, some companies can receive a tax write-off for still-usable materials donated to social housing projects.
In 2015, the Milwaukee-based Construction & Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA) – a membership organization which promotes and defends environmentally-sound recycling – pegged construction and demolition materials recycling as a $7.4 billion industry. With indirect economic factors included, the industry is valued at over $7 billion. In addition to being highly profitable, recycling and re-use of construction waste directly support over 19,000 jobs in the United States alone, with another $4.5 billion invested in developing and building infrastructure projects which support CDW initiatives.
For construction firms to successfully redirect waste, best practices need to be established, starting with reducing, redirecting and eliminating the massive amount of material from landfill sites. It is estimated that for the construction of a modest, 2,000-square-foot home, some 8,000 pounds of waste material ends up being dumped. This extremely heavy waste included everything from concrete to plumbing fixtures and salvaged material like doors and windows. Many of these items can be recycled or even reused.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sustainable materials management (SMM) is key to identifying C&D materials, which can be used in new construction. Recycled C&D materials save money and lessen the manufacturing of virgin materials. However, this requires the cooperation of construction firms, designers and others to reduce the amount of materials used at source and recovering, recycling and reusing construction materials.
Successful waste reduction comes from pre-planning projects well in advance of construction and working with key partners to prevent waste from unnecessarily being generated in the first place. Working with designers and architects, construction companies can inventory an existing building before demolition to determine what materials can be re-used into the structure or sold to recycling businesses. The process of deconstruction – as opposed to demolition – sees portions of a structure carefully taken apart. Far less material is unnecessarily transported to landfill through this method, minimising trucking costs and carbon emissions. Wherever possible, another tool to minimise waste is building to standard dimensions, which provides numerous benefits. Less time is spent by workers on cutting, resulting in less waste of time and materials.
To further expedite removal, recycling and re-use, materials such as bricks, wood moulding and light and bathroom fixtures can be sorted and placed into appropriate containers by workers on the job site in an area specifically designated for this purpose. A number of organizations exist, such as Habitat for Humanity and Planet Reuse, which have stores that sell construction materials and fixtures which are still useful.
Another option for construction companies is recycling. Again, materials can be separated in advance of pick-up or delivery to an approved facility. While some products like concrete, asphalt and gravel can be ground and re-purposed into new concrete and shingles, other materials are valuable.
Metals, particularly copper wiring, brass, aluminum and steel scrap, can be sold, smelted and made into new products. Likewise, plastics and cardboard packaging can, and should, be separated and recycled and taken to local facilities, minimising lost time, fuel and labour costs. Although it may seem obvious, it is advantageous for companies to research when these local recycling plants are open – more than one contractor has hauled a truck of scrap to a center assuming it was open late.
To make the process easier, cities like Detroit have introduced schemes to bring businesses together to divert landfill, like the Reuse Opportunity Collaboratory (ROC). Described as “a groundbreaking new effort to bring together Detroit industries, institutions, small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs to create closed-loop systems in which one organization’s waste becomes another’s raw material,” the ROC facilitates the sharing of available materials, sorting and identifying potential matches and exchanges. The benefits are many, ranging from lowered operating costs to a reduced carbon footprint, local economic development by stimulating entrepreneurship, an enhanced corporate reputation and more.
From keeping construction waste out of landfills to recycling scrap metal for profit, reducing harmful emissions and giving still-usable materials a new home, the benefits of reducing, re-using and recycling materials is not just good for business, it is good for everyone.