Managing Construction and Demolition Waste Sustainably

Sustainable Construction Management


Sustainable Management Of Construction & Demolition Waste

 article by Kiara Fullham

The EPA dons many different hats – their mission is, after all “to protect human health and the environment”. That’s a broad, though laudable, goal. The EPA has to work several angles in order to achieve its goals. One of those angles is data collection – and it’s something the EPA is very good at.

Let’s turn our attention to a PDF from the EPA entitled Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Fact Sheet.  While the document reports on findings from 2018, it was published in 2020 – good data takes time. We’re lucky to have this document: It reveals a lot about construction and demolition (C&D) waste in the United States. 

A cursory read-through tells us that the United States produced 292 million tons of municipal waste in 2018. Municipal waste is what we usually think of when discussing waste – spoiled food, cardboard boxes, glass bottles, and the like.

So how much C&D waste did the United States produce in the same period? The number is staggering: 600 million tons. That means that C&D waste accounted for more than twice the amount of municipal waste produced in the United States. 67.5% of this waste was concrete, and the vast majority (567.3 million tons) was created through demolition – not construction.

This means that over two-thirds of the waste accounted for in the study was C&D-related waste. Sustainably managing C&D waste could drastically reduce the total amount of waste produced in the United States. In light of this, let’s take a look at some strategies which could improve sustainability in C&D.


Reduce Demolitions

traditional demolition is responsible for creating tons of waste

Construction creates far less waste than demolition. While there are some concerns about emissions related to construction projects (the process for creating concrete results in a staggering amount of CO2 being emitted), reducing demolition could help us reduce the quantity of materials that are diverted to landfills.

One of the best ways of reducing the number of demolitions is through adaptive reuse, a process in which an existing building is adapted to suit a purpose other than the purpose it was originally designed for. Old warehouses might be converted to high-density housing. An old power plant could house several retail outlets and offices. There’s almost no end to the possibilities of adaptive reuse. 

Another way of reducing demolitions is through the use of more active preservation strategies. Commercial demolition can account for about 10% of costs when it comes to new construction projects. All in all, this is a rather small sum of the total costs, and preservation strategies can be more costly over time. As such, it may be beneficial for all levels of government to provide property managers with incentives for building maintenance and upkeep. Lowering the cost of proper maintenance could seriously reduce C&D-related waste.


Diverting Waste From Landfills

hundreds of millions of tons of C&D waste is diverted to landfills annually

Of the 600 million tons of C&D waste created in the United States in 2018, over 455 million tons were “directed to next use”. This means those waste items were recycled or reused in some way.

That’s a pretty impressive number – it means under 145 million tons were sent to landfills. Optimally, we want the amount of waste sent to landfills to hit zero. There are a few different ways we might go about this.

The first is to choose construction techniques that use more reusable materials. This can mean avoiding materials like asphalt for roofing and opting instead to use metal roofing. Aggregate can be reused (indeed, it’s the most reused material) – but to do so can require special demolition techniques.

That brings us to perhaps the most useful method of diverting waste from landfills: Opting for deconstruction instead of traditional demolition. Deconstruction involves carefully removing materials from a building, instead of using heavy equipment or explosives. Some heavy hauling services will still be required, of course, as materials from deconstructed buildings are still cumbersome and difficult to transport. Despite the need for some heavy machinery, deconstruction involves fewer emissions than normal demolition and results in more materials being preserved.

Deconstruction tends to cost a lot more than traditional demolition. Again, here, government intervention in the form of subsidies could change the cost-benefit analysis on deconstruction versus traditional demolition for property owners. 


Reducing Construction Waste

Demolition is the side of the C&D equation that we should be most focused on, as demolition creates the most waste. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t room for improvement when it comes to construction. 

Choosing building products and materials with minimal packaging, employing loss prevention strategies to preserve materials (and avoid needing to replace them), and purchasing the right amount of materials can help construction companies significantly reduce waste.


Reducing Waste Is Only One Part of the Equation

This article has been focused on reducing waste – eliminating waste where possible, and diverting waste away from landfills and toward reuse when necessary. Of course, as our readers know, waste reduction is only one part of going green. The C&D industry must also strive to reduce carbon emissions – but for that topic, we’d need to write a whole new article.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this one. 


 Kiara is a part of the marketing team at Quik-Therm Insulation. Quik-Therm provides commercial roof insulation solutions that are environmentally responsible, require fewer components, install faster, and cost less.