Building Sustainability Momentum

Planning for disposal long before the shovel hits the ground will minimize the amount of waste produced in the first place, diverting as much as possible from landfills and bringing disposal costs down.
By Ray Hatch
November 16, 2021

The construction industry has become increasingly complex and regulated, subject to permits, approvals and safety and worksite controls. As innovation continues to challenge the industry, contractors must track what’s happening now and what’s to come.

Based on consumer demand, operating sustainably could give an organization a competitive advantage. But doing so means knowing where waste occurs and what can be recycled.

1. Know Where Waste is Most Likely to Occur

Construction site waste is inevitable—even a modest location can produce incredible waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018, the United States had an estimated 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris. Unfortunately, this number continues to rise and could reach 2.2 billion tons by 2025. In turn, it’s essential to identify significant waste generators.

Construction waste is likely to occur during the construction, demolition, remodeling and restoration processes. It can also happen in the preconstruction phase, where material transportation and storage issues can damage material.

To track where waste occurs, comprehensive waste audits should be performed regularly. Learning about a building’s waste streams informs what waste collection services are needed in a cost-efficient way. It can help identify areas of concern or recycling and reuse opportunities that were not evident during the planning stages. In addition to cost and time benefits, waste audits help construction teams and contractors remain federally compliant.

2. Know Which Materials Can Be Reused

According to a recent report by the EPA, more than 75% of all construction waste—from asphalt shingles, bricks, clay tiles, drywall and wood—ends up in landfills. Reusing materials is the most environmentally friendly disposal method.

When considering the sheer volume of material used in building, reusing and recycling components makes logical sense. Reusing materials reduces demand for new resources, cuts costs related to production and transportation and eliminates landfill use. Common construction and renovation materials that can be reused or recycled, including the following.

Concrete and asphalt

These materials make up 85% of construction and demolition waste in the United States, according to the EPA. Fortunately, they can be crushed and recycled as a base course for building driveways and footpaths.

Drywall and gypsum
The United States produces about 15 million tons of new drywall a year, and approximately 12% of new construction drywall is wasted or damaged during the installation process. These materials are one of the most significant contributors of waste. However, they can be recycled into new wallboard paper or become soil amendment.

Green waste
Yard waste and food scraps make up about 30% of jobsite trash, according to the EPA. Instead of throwing post-pruning piles away, take the green scaping approach and recycle yard waste. Grass, leaves and wood scraps can be used as organic mulch around gardens and flower beds. Instead of using a hauler, use a wood chipper or shredder.

Leftover insulation from walls can become noise-reduction material. Use various materials like denim, polystyrene, wool and plastic bags as insulation.

Select metals can be melted down and reformed into new metal products or sold for scrap. Nails and bolts can be reused, too. (Pro tip: Using mechanical fasteners such as bolts, screws and nails instead of sealants and adhesives allows workers to dismantle buildings rather than knock them down. This increases what can be salvaged undamaged on site.)

National Geographic said 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. In construction, plastics are generally used for interior fittings, pipework and framing. These can be repurposed into packaging and low-cost alternatives to roofing tiles, concrete, structural lumber, fences and carpeting.

Stairs, timber, doors, or paneling can be used for future projects. If damaged, it can be mulched or burned as bioenergy. Large pieces can be sized down and put back to use.

Consider returning, selling or donating unused materials to local charities and schools. For example, materials could be used in classroom lessons or for landscaping.

3. Educate Employees to Improve Awareness and Safety

Education is the backbone of sustainability, whether it’s increasing awareness of environmental impact or providing regular toolbox talks on how to reduce, reuse and recycle on worksites. Sustainability education is key to achieving success in diverting materials from landfills.

Ideally, visualization tools should be used in training sessions to make materials easy to identify onsite. Tracking progress and promoting recycling at site meetings can motivate staff to reach sustainability goals.

Kick education off with an event to introduce the company’s recycling policy and discuss how it will benefit the team, keeping safety and overall health in mind.

Planning for disposal long before the shovel hits the ground will minimize the amount of waste produced in the first place, diverting as much as possible from landfills and bringing disposal costs down. Tracking inputs and outputs helps recognize realistic, scalable solutions, ultimately making sustainability easier for companies to achieve.

by Ray Hatch
Ray Hatch has served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Quest Resource Management Group (NASDAQ: QRHC) since February 2016. Hatch is a senior executive with in-depth experience building a profitable business and orchestrating transformational growth. He brings over 25 years of experience in the waste management and food services industries, where he generated more than a billion dollars in revenue.

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