Green Solutions for Construction, Renovation and Demolitions Waste

Earlier this month, the C&D Recycling Forum brought together key experts from a variety of backgrounds, including general and demolition contractors, government officials and waste and recycling representatives. During this event, much of the discussion focused on ways to divert the waste that is generated during construction, renovation and demolition projects, through recycling and other diversion methods.

During this event, my colleague, Jim Halter, Vice President for Construction Solutions for Waste Management, shed light on some of the issues and challenges the construction and demolition sector faces, particularly in terms of diverting this waste away from landfills. Of note, during 2008 alone, the U.S. generated 143.5 million tons of building-related construction and demolition debris. And according to the Waste Business Journal, only 28 percent of this waste was reused, recycled or sent to waste-to-energy facilities. Today, at more than 40 percent of the national waste stream, C&D waste represents the largest single source of our waste. This clearly presents a need for effective and environmentally conscious management of this large volume of waste.

Although the composition of most construction waste varies by location, project type and season, building debris generally consists of asphalt, brick, glass, plaster, insulation and roofing materials, cardboard, concrete, wood, drywall and metal. Each of these types of debris is vastly different, affecting the ease of the materials’ recovery, separation and recyclability. The differences in recycling methods for these various materials have posed a significant challenge to contractors as they seek to implement sustainable waste strategies. Not only is it difficult for contractors to locate suppliers and vendors to help them achieve their green building goals, but also the availability of recycling markets differs by region and the type of materials that need to be processed.

For instance, Jim looked at the ability to recycle shingles and insulation. When recycling shingles, the biggest concern is the potential presence of asbestos. Additional costs arise to test for asbestos and have it removed. With insulation, he suspects the presence of fiberglass may contribute to its low recycling rate since the formaldehyde content may lead to health concerns resulting from the recycling process.

From a regional perspective, some restrictions apply to the types of materials that can be recycled. In the West, asphalt is readily more recyclable than in the South or Midwest and ceramic tile are easier to recycle than in other regions of the country. In the Midwest, carpet is easier to recycle than compared to the South; however, plaster is harder to recycle than in other regions of the country. In the East, cardboard is easier to recycle versus in the South and Midwest. And in the South, this region has the lowest recycling frequency compared to other regions, particularly when it comes to wood.

As contractors become more conscious of the potential environmental impact of construction and demolition projects, they have also become more attuned to the need for responsible management of the subsequent waste from these projects. Contractors recognize the substantial impact that sustainable construction waste management can have on their businesses, and a growing number are adopting environmental conscious practices to divert and recycle more materials and reduce disposal to landfills for their own companies, regardless of their customer’s goals. Of note, construction firms are seeking environmental solutions companies that are committed to sustainability with their own complementary goals. However, a lack of readily available suppliers and vendors that have sustainability expertise impedes contractors’ ability to practice sustainable waste management.

In fact, just last year The McGraw-Hill Companies’ SmartMarket Report found that a growing number of contractors see construction waste management and the reuse of existing structures among the most important factors when implementing sustainable building methods. The study, which was produced with support from Waste Management, also revealed that 61 percent of contractors rate waste management plans as the second-most important aspect of green building, behind energy efficiency. Interestingly, despite the recession, waste diversion activity among construction firms is increasing, with 20 percent diverting half of their construction waste on 60 percent or more of their projects throughout the year.

As the green building trend continues to grow, it is important to realize the needs of contractors working to create sustainable solutions, including their desire for construction waste management and reuse processes. Events like the C&D Recycling Forum help bring expertise to the table in terms of finding solutions to these latent issues. As Jim demonstrated in his remarks, the waste industry remains aware of the constraints placed on contractors to use sustainable practices to meet recent trends, government regulations and so forth. With new technologies and environmental regulations taking shape each day, contractors, waste industry experts and government officials will continue to work together to ensure construction, renovation and demolition waste is responsibly disposed. Not only does proper construction waste management have a substantial business impact, but also it is an environmentally conscious practice that can benefit our entire nation.

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