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Waste Across Industries, No. 3: The true cost of construction waste

Construction projects generate a lot of waste. In many cases, this waste in inevitable. However, it does have a significant cost.

In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the waste from construction sites was roughly double that of municipal waste from households and businesses in the United States. That amounted to 600 million tons!

As we have already explored in our first issue of this series, those waste costs can really add up and put a strain on a business.

Part three of Schooley Mitchell’s five-part series.

In the previous issue of Schooley Mitchell’s series on waste across industries, we looked at some of the surprising truths about business food waste. This week, in our third issue, we focus on the construction industry.

So, what is the true cost of construction-related waste, and what can companies do to reduce this expense?

What are the facts about construction waste?

Construction and demolition debris, or C&D waste, is no small problem. C&D waste includes concrete, asphalt, wood, and other building wastes. To put this waste category into perspective, here are some of the numbers:

  • In the United States, C&D waste accounts for nearly one quarter of yearly waste.
  • Globally, construction waste is projected to reach 2.2 billion tons annually by 2025.
  • C&D waste generation increased 342 percent between 1990 and 2018.

Construction related waste is a growing problem, with no slowdown in sight.

Where is C&D waste generated?

The purpose of construction projects is to take materials and turn them into something, not to put anything to waste. So where in the process is waste generated?

Here are some of the common areas where C&D waste in generated:

  • During material procurement — it’s easy to overestimate the materials needed, thus creating a surplus, which may end up being wasted.
  • While building — damaged or scrapped materials often end up in the waste. Especially with more fragile materials such as glass or wood.
  • Demolitions — demolition waste accounts for almost 95 percent of C&D waste, due to destructive methods like explosives.

Likewise, some construction materials are more likely to generate waste than others:

  • Concrete — according to the EPA, concrete accounts for about 67.5 percent  of all C&D waste by weight.
  • Bricks — while a brick in good condition is good for reuse in a later project, brick waste often includes contaminants like mortar and plaster, which reduces the reusability.
  • Ceramic and tile — while these materials are more easily damaged, they can likewise be easily recycled if they are still intact.
  • Wood — wood is used in so many aspects of construction, from roof beams, to wall supports, to hardwood floors. Construction sites often end up with leftover wood, shavings, and scraps.
  • Insulation — a potentially hazardous material, this is a big source of waste that cannot be reused or recycled, and must be disposed of properly.
  • Drywall — while most unused drywall ends up as waste, it can also be recycled and reused to make products such as fertilizer.

How is construction waste disposed?

Depending on the material, some C&D waste is easily recyclable, such as steel. Others end up filling landfills the majority of the times they are disposed. Here are some C&D waste disposal facts:

  • Up to 30 percent of all building materials on a typical construction site can end up as waste.
  • More than 75 percent of construction waste, including wood, drywall, plastics, asphalt singles, and bricks, end up in landfills.
  • In the United States, concrete and asphalt concrete make up 85 percent of C&D waste.

What is the cost of this waste?

As you can imagine, the price of disposing all this waste is not cheap. More than just a weekly or biweekly garbage pickup, construction sites are looking at regular truckloads of waste being removed. Depending on the provider you work with, the material you’re disposing, and your reuse and recycling options, your bill might look different from project to project. However, the average price to remove a truck-full of waste from a construction site is $600 per truckload. For a large project, your expenses can rise very quickly.

Reducing waste and waste-related expenses.

If you’re worried about waste in the construction industry, you’re not alone. Many innovative methods and solutions have been brought to the table to solve this growing problem.

One such solution is called ‘lean construction’, a method developed out of the Japanese process of lean manufacturing, practiced by companies like Toyota. The aim of the lean method is to achieve sustainability via management, improve problem solving, measure success, and view morale. Reducing waste and expenses is a natural part of this goal.

Developing a construction waste management plan is also a viable strategy to begin reducing the cost of C&D waste. This can include developing ways to use more recyclable materials, using technology to monitor and optimize supply chains, and slowly progressing your company towards a zero-waste model.

Can we change our waste culture?

There are cultural shifts North America can take to reduce the cost and impact of C&D waste. In other parts of the word, the industry has turned this burden into an opportunity, creating thousands of jobs. In the United Kingdom, approximately 90 percent of C&D waste is recycled locally.

Of course, one business cannot be solely responsible for this change. However, it is important to remember that jobs created by recycling and reuse outnumber traditional waste disposal jobs 9:1. This shift in waste disposal practices would benefit everyone.

In conclusion…

Construction and demolition related waste accounts for much of landfill waste in North America, and across the globe. The amount and cost of this waste is only rising. There are steps individual companies can take to reduce waste and its associated expenses.

Next week…                    

Next week, in part four of our series on waste expenses across industries, we do a deep dive into medical waste disposal.

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