Identifying and Reducing Waste in Construction

Identifying and Reducing Waste in Construction

The construction industry is one of the largest and most valued industries in the U.S. Construction products from the industry are obviously integral parts of our daily lives. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of people are employed in some facet of the industry, whether that is contracting, plumbing, or selling the finished product.

The construction industry is vital for economic growth and is highly valued in our society. However, as with everything, the positives come with negatives. For instance, it is well known that the construction industry produces an incredible amount of waste. This waste makes up a significant portion of the materials that ultimately end up in landfills annually.

In the face of a changing climate and growing consumer motivation to become more sustainable, many construction companies are realizing the need to make changes. Addressing the waste problem in the construction industry is not a simple task. However, doing so and working toward a cleaner standard could make a positive difference in all our lives.

Waste Generation

Many experts estimate that 23% of the waste produced in the United States comes from construction. In 2018, this equated to an estimated 600 million tons of construction-related waste. Unfortunately, the amount of waste product produced per construction project has only risen in the past 30 years.

Waste generation in construction starts at the very beginning of the process during site preparation. In this step, any vegetation or older materials that are in the way are removed. A significant portion of the overall waste produced on-site comes from this part of the project, especially if there is demolition involved. This waste is typically hauled off to a landfill by a waste removal company before any new materials are brought to the site.

The types of waste produced once construction begins can add up quickly. An estimated 30% of materials that are brought to a construction site will become waste. The type of materials that become waste may include things like:

  • Excess building materials that cannot be returned
  • Glass
  • Wood
  • Concrete
  • Packaging materials
  • Metals
  • Hazardous materials

Reducing Waste

Recognizing the amount and types of waste produced is the first step in making a change for the better. The next step involves determining what can be done to make a difference in reducing the amount of waste at any given point in the process. Fortunately, there are quite a few options.

A large number of the waste products at a construction site can be reused or recycled in some way. Reusing products is a great option because it successfully diverts leftover products from the landfill and provides free materials for future projects. Some of the things that are easy to reuse include materials such as:

  • Movable items that can be salvaged for other projects, including appliances, doors, fixtures, and other hardware
  • Scrap wood and lumber, which can be used in some instances rather than cutting new sheets of full-length wood
  • Unusable scrap wood and vegetative material removed during site prep, which can be chipped, mulched, or composted on site
  • Brick, concrete, and other similar materials that can be reused on-site as fill, subbase material, or pavement bedding
  • Packaging materials that can be returned to suppliers for reuse

New technologies in construction have driven down the costs for many materials and also made it easier to reuse and recycle them. Today, new construction contributes just 5% of the total construction waste. Most waste is coming from upgrades or demolitions of older construction. The industry is also making real gains in recycling products. The EPA estimates that 95% of concrete and asphalt waste is recovered and 98% of steel in construction is recycled.

Making a Positive Difference

All of these small changes add up over time. Eventually, they lead to profound changes in the system and how waste is thought about and managed in general. Many of these changes could trickle down throughout a community and become just one of many simple ways that waste is reduced. For example, that leftover scrap wood that was chipped and left to compost could lead to a sustainable garden space.

The climate issues that are facing the county and the globe are significant. A focused effort in the construction industry to make a difference could work to tip the scales in the favor of bringing the climate crisis under control. Many substantial strides have been made in the right direction, but there is always more work to be done.

The construction industry is a large economic powerhouse; if it decides to change and put more of an emphasis on reducing waste and reusing or recycling materials, chances are good that real progress will be made. Identifying ways to cut down on waste, looking for alternatives, and implementing more sustainable waste management options on-site are the first steps.  

Author: Amanda Winstead is a freelance writer in the construction industry