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6 Steps to Reuse and Recycle Construction Materials


Construction recycling has quickly moved from a good business choice to a necessity. According to one in-depth study, more than two billion tons of solid waste will be generated around the world in 2025 — with half of it likely to come from building projects. To put that in context, the World Bank found that so much construction-related trash was created in 2018 that it represented a shocking 3.7 pounds (1.68 kg) per day for every person on the planet.

The United States has certainly been contributing its fair share to the global junk pile. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that more than 600 tons of construction and demolition debris were created in the country in 2018 — more than double the amount of municipal solid waste generated over the same period.

Given the high-profile challenges of shrinking landfill space, climate change and the post-pandemic economy, it's clear that far more construction and demolition recycling will have to take place in the near future.

The benefits double up every time: not only does recycling plastic pipework save filling the ground with long-lasting garbage, it also uses far less carbon than producing new products. Similarly, reusing bricks from one job on your next site doesn’t just avoid the rising cost of landfills, it cuts your bill for new materials.

Here’s our six-step guide to managing construction waste for financial, reputational and environmental gain.

1. Plan Ahead

Most construction and demolition recycling and reuse can effectively be achieved before the waste is even generated. As with all aspects of a construction project, planning is critical.  

Starting at the design stage, compliance with the waste hierarchy is critical in decision-making. This means prioritizing reduction and re-use, recycling and composting before energy recovery and finally, treatment and disposal. Architects wouldn’t design a building without considering occupant safety or comfort, nor should they draw up plans that would generate unnecessary waste at a significant cost to the project and the environment.

When planning a construction project, ensure everyone from the client to the subcontractors thinks about ways to minimize and best manage waste.

2. Prevent Waste Before it Arrives 

You can make significant gains just by systematically stamping out opportunities for waste. Like any other aspect of construction, this skill can be honed with practice until it becomes second nature.

An obvious starting point for waste reduction is looking carefully at any demolition plans. Could the structure to be torn down, be fully or partly retained, adapted or deconstructed in a more sensitive way that would allow you to salvage more materials?

Also, think carefully about new materials coming to the site. More carefully considered ordering and cutting could reduce waste. Using modern construction methods such as offsite manufacture and standardized elements can make significant inroads into inefficiencies that have long been taken for granted.

Communication can also make a significant difference. Rather than telling an electrician about changes to lighting requirements when they get to the site, give them advance notice. This will help prevent the unnecessary waste of fittings or other related materials. 

3. Reuse Where Possible

Inevitably, almost all projects will create a degree of construction and demolition waste. So the next step is to find out what can be reused. Maybe you end up with some mineral wall insulation when you’ve finished heat-proofing the walls of an office block. Look for where these can be incorporated elsewhere in the building or even your next job.

As well as like-for-like reuse, there are many opportunities to find different jobs for excess material. Have you considered breaking down unused chunks of timber for use as mulch in garden beds? Are there local charities or volunteer organizations that would welcome unwanted elements such as scrap doors and windows? 

Keeping packaging and delivery items such as boxes and pallets in good condition will often allow them to be returned to the seller. That boosts relations with a key supplier and slashes waste.

A forensic approach to cutting out waste should become as natural to your staff and subcontractors as attention to other details such as cost savings and safety.

4. Separate and Recycle

If you can't prevent or reuse construction and demolition waste, have clear plans in place to recycle it. This often starts with separating it on-site into different waste streams.

Having a marked area for each material type can improve site organization, give a visual prompt for responsible waste management and, critically, maximize the value of collected items.

Keeping recyclable material in reasonable condition – rather than allowing it to become a soggy, unmanageable mess – is also advisable. Covered, accessible containers are ideal.

A wide range of construction and demolition recycling is now possible, from various grades of glass, plastic and wood, to many types of carpet, tiles, bricks and blocks. The value of these materials to recyclers will depend on factors such as contamination levels, end markets and reprocessing facility availability.

Each project team will have to decide how granular to go when separating refuse. Depending on the site size, volume and collector requirements, you may, for example, choose to collect glass in one container or break it down into several bins by color or grade.

It's important to discuss recycling processes with your collector – which brings us to our next section.

5. Procure Wisely

Once your waste materials are separated and stored, you need to ensure they are handled in the best way possible. This means having a collection and disposal contract with a responsible organization that can help you on your mission.

A strong partner in this area will offer you the benefit of their experience. They can make sure you follow the waste hierarchy and any local laws and industry best practices. They will also help you overcome any challenges particular to your site and project. Crucially, they can move your loads on for reuse and recycling, rather than landfilling or illegally dumping them.

Of course, procurement can help tackle waste from the start of a project lifecycle as well. Buy products you know can be recycled. Even consider purchasing second-life materials where specifications allow to boost the local recycling market.

6. Measure and Celebrate Success

Construction sites are busy, sometimes stressful places. It's easy for an initiative like renewed construction and demolition, reuse and recycling to slip down the pecking order when the pressure is on.

To maintain momentum behind this important activity, have plenty of visual cues to stimulate the behavior you want and make it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing.

As well as setting the bar high, collect data on waste reduction, reuse and recycling, show progress in this area, and spell out what has been achieved from simple actions. Increased construction recycling is worth celebrating.

Dig deeper on The KnowHow for more tips and insight on sustainable business practices.

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.