Rethinking Construction is Rethinking Waste

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Construction and demolition waste makes up the majority of landfill content across the world. Because of that, waste management has become an ever-growing concern, especially in low-income countries. But it is particularly worrying when we consider the environmental effects the construction industry has on our planet.

According to a report from Transparency Market Research, the total volume of construction waste will double to 2.2 billion tonnes (2.42 billion tons) by 2025. All that junk has to end up somewhere, right? Unfortunately, the traditional avenue of disposal will lead it straight to the nearest landfill.

That results in potentially usable materials piling up and clogging landfills instead of being redistributed and reused. Ideally, all construction projects would have waste disposal plans for diverting materials away from landfills. The most promising solution to that problem lies in environmental policies like LEED.

Construction waste and the LEED system

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about what LEED is. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is an environmentally conscious rating system that guarantees cost-efficient, healthy and, most importantly, green buildings. Essentially, properties can receive up to 110 points based on five criteria, including:

  • The sustainability of the site chosen for the construction
  • Energy use and the effects on the atmosphere
  • Water efficiency during construction (as well the efficiency of the plumbing in the finished building)
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • The use of materials and resources (which is where waste management comes in)

Since this is a rating system, projects with as few as 40 points can be LEED-certified. But those that get over 50, 60, or 80 points can receive Silver, Gold and Platinum certification, respectively.

RELATED: Why Documenting LEED Standards Matters

So how can green builders ensure that their projects are up to par with LEED standards? As we have mentioned, that’s something we need to tackle from several angles. Waste collection is a huge part of resource management. So to understand our options on that front, we have to talk about waste streams.

Material waste streams

To establish a LEED-approved waste disposal system, we have to know where the excess materials from a construction site are going. Different recycling plants can handle different kinds of materials. So that’s something green builders should be aware of before starting a new project.

If a crew is given waste management instructions before breaking ground, they would be able to sort different materials from the get-go. Conversely, when it comes to demolition, waste creation is usually more chaotic. That results in piles of mixed materials a crew has to separate after the project is complete. Among those materials, we might find:

  • Asphalt and concrete
  • Bricks, clay and ceramics
  • Gypsum, plasterboard or drywall
  • Various kinds of metals
  • Fiber-based materials like carpeting
  • Glass
  • Paper
  • Wood
  • Soil

Separating these things can either happen on- or offsite — either way, it requires trained personnel. The workers need to know how to correctly identify and sort different kinds of waste.

Still, when the system works, it takes a lot of the guesswork out of waste management. After the sorting process, each kind of material flows down separate waste streams toward specialized recycling facilities. However, to comply with LEED guidelines, each stream would need to contain at least 5% of the total volume of a project’s waste. At the end of a project, a team would only need to prove that the various materials ended up in their designated facilities by submitting a report to the LEED certification board.

Implementing the LEED system on construction projects

Ideally, all construction projects should be made with waste management in mind. That would allow project teams to implement various waste reduction strategies throughout the construction process. Doing so would save the crew from having to deal with it all upon the completion of a project.

Now, if the project manager decides against onsite sorting, they could hire a qualified waste disposal company instead. If the goal is to make a LEED-certified building, the company in question would have to be aware of those guidelines as well. So what are some eco-friendly solutions for the disposal of construction waste?

Well, first things first, we have to consider that not all materials are recyclable, according to the LEED guidelines. Certain hazardous substances can contaminate materials that constitute clean waste. Still, materials like wood, scrap metals, drywall, brick, ceiling tiles and others are recyclable or at least reusable.

If a project team doesn’t manage to reclaim or recycle the materials in question, they may end up in a landfill. However, there is one method we haven’t mentioned that features heavily in most LEED-certified construction projects. Namely, the simplest way to avoid having to deal with waste is to minimize or prevent its creation in the first place. But how would we do that?

How rethinking waste makes us rethink construction and vice versa

When we start thinking about construction projects in terms of waste disposal, our mindset shifts from waste management to minimization. On a regular project, we might overestimate the resources we need and chuck the excess into a landfill upon completion. However, planning ahead allows us to calculate and order the exact amount of materials we’ll use. That reduces the resources and energy we expend dealing with leftover waste.

Of course, in this line of business, some amount of waste is inevitable. Luckily, the LEED system allows green builders to handle it in a sustainable way. In addition to recycling waste in the appropriate facilities, we can also reuse them in other projects or donate them.

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