What Can We Do About Construction and Demolition Waste?

construction waste
Credit: Aleksandar Pasaric, Pexels

The construction industry erects and demolishes hundreds of new buildings and homes all over the world every day. And, although many structures contain non-renewable resources and materials that people can easily recycle or reuse, most are simply tossed into dumpsters and landfills.

In fact, the average building demolition produces 155 pounds of waste per square foot. That adds up incredibly quickly, resulting in overflowing landfills, deteriorating ecosystems and the loss of valuable resources.

The Environmental Impact of C&D Waste

While it may be easier and cheaper for construction companies to simply dump used or unwanted materials into a landfill, this waste can have a negative impact on the environment.

Growing landfills emit methane, which pollutes the air and exacerbates the greenhouse effect. Dumping hazardous materials like paints, varnishes and other chemicals into landfills may cause dangerous substances to seep into the earth. This seepage can affect groundwater and result in runoff, which can pollute waterways, destroy ecosystems and contaminate freshwater supplies.

Demolition can also introduce pollutants to the environment. When contractors tear down buildings, wind can carry loose dust and debris, leaving it to settle in the area or even miles away. Depending on what this dust is made of, it could have an adverse effect on public health. Moreover, many cities don’t enforce laws related to minimizing exposure to demolition contaminants like asbestos or lead.

As a result, these substances travel through the air and settle on lawns, gardens, homes and more, affecting both people and the environment.

Solving the Problem

Because construction and demolition debris can cause such a huge impact on the health of the planet, many companies are looking for ways to reduce their impact. By eliminating waste, recycling and reusing materials, contractors can minimize their environmental impact before during and after projects.

1. Eliminating Waste

In many cases, project managers can lead the way in reducing and eliminating waste on construction sites. For instance, exact measurements ensure there is enough material to build without leftovers. Regular inventory checks also help keep them from overordering materials.

Additionally, project managers should inform workers of the importance of reducing waste and recycling materials on the jobsite. Proper training will help workers determine what can be salvaged and what must be thrown away.

Regarding demolition, one way to minimize waste is to deconstruct the building instead of destroying it. Of course, this may take a bit more time than were workers to take a wrecking ball to the building. However, through “soft teardowns,” workers eliminate the risk of air pollution from dust and debris. Once they’ve determined which materials they can recycle or reuse, they can demolish the rest of it under a building cover to minimize the spread of dust.

2. Recycling

If a construction project or demolition does produce waste, workers can divert much of it from landfills by recycling it. Materials like concrete, wood, metals and asphalt can all be recycled.

For instance, the concrete industry uses waste products like fly ash and blast furnace slag to make new concrete. The glass industry can form new products from glass materials recycled at demolition sites. Workers can also recycle things like light fixtures, hardware and appliances by donating them to a local charity or humanitarian organization.

However, in order for workers to recycle as many materials as they can, project managers must train them on how and what to recycle. An educational course before beginning a project can help workers determine which materials they can recycle and which should be tossed. Providing clearly labeled recycling bins throughout the construction and demolition site will make the whole process easier and more accessible.

3. Salvaging and Reusing

Not everything falls into the category of waste or recycling. Many materials, like copper wiring, aluminum gutters and wooden beams are reusable. If workers salvage these items during a soft teardown, they can save managers money on future projects by reusing these items.

If the project manager sees no use for these materials in future projects, she can sell them to other companies or donate them and use them as a tax write-off. This way, the construction industry can keep more materials out of landfills and in newly constructed homes instead.

Salvaging and reusing also minimize the extraction of virgin resources, many of which are non-renewable. For instance, metals like copper, aluminum and steel are nonrenewable. Every time miners dig for metal, they negatively impact the planet.

From physically disturbing the landscaping and destroying ecosystems to contaminating soil, water and air, mining can have some serious consequences. Reusing these materials or melting them down to create something new can reduce the demand and impact of mining.

Environmental Changes for Construction and Demolition

Due to the immense impact construction and demolition projects can have on the environment, many companies are now looking to reduce their waste and keep materials out of landfills. Of course, this may be easier said than done in the beginning, when processes are new.

However, through proper training, education and adaptation, the construction industry can make waste elimination a priority. When they do, they’ll be helping out the planet and creating a more sustainable future — not just for their industry, but for everyone.