It was 1989. Bob Berkebile, a creative thinker with a passion for the environment, wondered how he and his fellow architects could design environmentally responsible buildings.
Berkebile formed a small committee, and his idea gained traction. The U.S. Green Building Council, a leading agency in sustainable design and construction, was eventually born. The USGBC’s green rating system is called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED and it is used around the globe today. Projects that promote health, energy efficiency and cost savings are awarded LEED certification in various categories.
The movement that Berkebile started has forever changed the way structures are designed and built. It has even changed traditional approaches to disposing of waste.
Construction waste a huge problem
In 2018, the U.S. generated around 600 million tons of construction and demolition, or C&D, materials. That was dramatically up from the estimated 136 million tons generated in 1996. Anything that is being built, renovated or torn apart — such as buildings, production plants, highways and bridges — creates debris. Demolitions account for about 90 percent of the waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency urges contractors to stop thinking of C&D materials as waste and start thinking of them as commodities. The discussion is not just limited to doors, hardware, plumbing fixtures, and other intact building components. Scrap metals, plastics, wood, glass, bricks, concrete, and asphalt also have value, yet they are sent to landfills every day.
The construction industry can join efforts with the EPA in several ways: reducing waste at the source, reusing salvageable materials, recycling or donating materials, and purchasing C&D materials for use on new projects. These are also good pathways to earning LEED certification.
Reducing construction waste
One of the best ways to manage C&D waste is to not generate it in the first place. For example, architects and designers are making buildings more adaptable for a variety of potential uses in the future.
For contractors, source reduction is a matter of keeping waste prevention on the front burner throughout the planning process:
• Deliberately choose products that are reusable, recyclable, or easy to disassemble.
• Choose vendors that promote waste prevention.
• Choose products with minimal packaging.
• Take inventory of supplies more often.
• Verify that measurements are precise.
• Teach subcontractors to identify and sort reusable or recyclable materials on the job site.
Reusing construction and demolition materials
The savings associated with salvaging and reusing materials make this a popular way to do one’s part. In some areas of the country, it is significantly less expensive to recover valuable products than it is to dispose of them in landfills.
What can and cannot be reused varies depending on location, but these are some commonly repurposed items:
• Sinks, bathtubs, and toilets
• Multipaned windows
• Wood flooring, cabinetry, scrap wood, and wood cutoffs
• Bricks, concrete, and stonework
• Leftover paint
• Excess insulation
• Gypsum removed from drywall
• Packing materials
There is a growing trend toward dismantling structures rather than destroying them altogether. Deconstruction has several benefits:
• Usable materials are easier to locate and recover.
• The country requires fewer landfills.
• Greenhouse gas emissions from incinerators and landfills are reduced.
• More trees are conserved.
• Materials remain local to eliminate the harmful effects of extracting resources and shipping new products.
• Unwanted materials can be donated to individuals or groups that post a wish list. These include vocational training centers, local business owners, schools, artists, woodworkers, and community theater groups.
• Deconstruction provides jobs and creates business opportunities.
The best structures for deconstruction include wood-framed buildings, buildings that contain valuable materials or products, and buildings that are structurally sound. If a structure has begun to decay but still retains valuable elements, it can be partially deconstructed before demolition.
Recycling construction and demolition materials
There is no denying that the U.S. recycling system could use some work. Well-intentioned contractors are often unsure about which materials can be recycled and where to drop them off. The EPA is working to clear up the confusion. In October of 2020, the agency released its National Recycling Strategy and invited public feedback. The main objectives are to reduce contamination, make processing more efficient and expand markets for recyclable products.
In the meantime, in areas where markets exist, wood can be repurposed for compost, mulch or even furniture. Most metals used in construction are recyclable. Concrete, gravel and asphalt are used to make new products or aggregate. Cardboard is not technically a C&D material, but packaging from job sites need not go to waste.
It is worth noting that some supposed recycling centers take shortcuts or otherwise mismanage materials. Useful products end up in landfills right along with useless ones. Contractors should verify that the processing center is licensed or has third-party certification and complies with regulations.
The website of the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association has a tool for searching recycling centers by location and material type.
Purchasing recycled construction materials
Reuse centers or retail businesses carry everything from millwork to fencing to architectural molding. The retail stores typically have a smaller selection, but their materials and products are of greater value. Many products have been cleaned up or otherwise prepared for sale.
Waste and material exchanges are also good options. Waste exchanges usually handle hazardous substances while material exchanges do not. Some exchanges are brick-and-mortar warehouses with a catalog of goods. Others connect buyers and sellers through a website.
Buying used C&D materials not only promotes sustainability, but it makes good business sense. Construction and renovation costs are reduced. Since used products are almost always sourced locally, communities get an economic boost.
The EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guideline Program is a great resource for buying used C&D products.
Keeping C&D materials out of landfills is a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. LEED certification is an additional perk for contractors. A LEED-certified home or business is a testament to innovation and sustainability.
There are many benefits to reducing waste from construction and demolition
Disposing of construction materials is expensive. There's the cost to load it, transport it, then the dump fees. There's also the cost to the environment. The environmental cost to get rid of the material, the environmental cost to create new materials, and the environmental impacts of the dump.
Recycling and reusing materials is often cheaper. Upcycling old buildings could be cheaper, and certainly less harmful to the environment. It may even help protect heritage buildings and heritage features.
Buildings with good LEED certification can command higher prices from buyers. More people are environmentally conscious these days.
Anyway shouldn't we be protecting the future that our children will inherit?
This is a guest post.
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