Waste production is inevitable on a construction site — even a modest site can produce huge volumes of waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, U.S. companies generated 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris.
What are the most common types of construction waste, and how can you manage that waste most effectively? Read on to learn more.
Sources of Construction Waste
A few different construction processes produce waste as a byproduct, such as the following:
1. Materials Budgeting and Procurement
When a construction company procures materials for a new site, it may slightly overestimate the amount of material it needs, since ordering too many items is an easier problem to handle than ordering too few. Once construction is over, the excess materials become waste. Often, they are suitable for reuse. If companies cannot reuse the materials, they may try to sell or recycle them.
2. Building Processes
Excess, damaged or scrap building materials often end up as waste after construction is over. These materials, such as wood, glass, metal and concrete, may come from construction, restoration or remodeling projects. If the materials are relatively intact, the construction company may be able to reuse, sell or recycle them instead of sending them to the landfill.
Many construction projects involve demolishing an existing structure. In this case, the pile of rubble the project creates will require some form of disposal. Demolition projects generally produce many of the same waste materials as new construction projects — after all, the demolished structure was a new construction once.
Many of the waste materials created through demolition are recyclable — even reusable if they remain in acceptable condition. Materials too degraded or contaminated to reuse or recycle will likely go to a landfill for disposal.
Construction Waste Disposal Methods
Construction companies have a few different waste disposal methods to employ for their materials, including:
Reusing waste materials is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly disposal method. Reusing materials has several benefits:
- Reducing consumption of raw materials.
- Reducing fossil fuel emissions from the creation of new products.
- Minimizing landfill waste.
- Getting a full span of use out of valuable materials and components.
Construction companies can often reuse materials from previous projects if the materials are still in good condition. They may also be able to sell their reusable waste materials to other companies.
If companies cannot reuse waste, recycling is also an attractive, sustainable option. Like many homes and offices, construction companies recycle materials like plastic and aluminum. They can often recycle a wide variety of other items as well, such as by turning wood into wood chips or concrete into aggregate filler.
3. Land Disposal
For materials that companies cannot reuse or recycle, land disposal is often the best option. Sending waste materials to a licensed landfill ensures the proper disposal of waste items. Some hazardous items may need to go to a concrete-lined landfill that can prevent leaks and ensure adequate environmental protection.
4. Treatment and Disposal
Hazardous waste often requires treatment before disposal. Effective treatment removes or neutralizes the waste’s toxic components. The nonhazardous waste can then go on to a landfill for disposal as usual.
5. Alternative Disposal Methods
Instead of sending waste materials to the landfill, construction companies occasionally choose alternatives like incineration or waste-to-fuel options. Incineration is sometimes an attractive solution if companies want to avoid contributing large volumes of waste to the landfill or need to avoid the potential of chemicals leaking into the soil and groundwater. Incineration can produce carbon emissions and air pollution, though, so companies should investigate their options carefully.
Types of Waste in Construction
Below are several common types of construction waste:
Concrete is an incredibly common type of construction waste — according to the EPA, it accounts for about 67.5% of all construction and demolition waste by weight.
Crushed reinforced concrete is in high demand as a recycled material. Crushed concrete aggregate — the industry term for sand and gravel — can replace new aggregate in new concrete.
This substitution is a popular option because of the current global sand shortage. The sand necessary for making concrete comes from rivers, lakes and seashores — desert sand, eroded by wind rather than water, is too smooth to compact into stable concrete. The world uses 50 billion tons of sand and gravel aggregate every year, and our deltas and coastlines cannot sustain that output. Crushed concrete aggregate from construction and demolition projects is a highly appealing option.
Bricks are also ideal for reuse in further projects as long as they have retained their structural integrity after demolition. Brick waste may include contaminants like mortar and plaster, however, which can reduce the value of bricks for reuse.
In that case, companies may want to send their bricks for recycling. Brick recycling involves crushing the bricks into tiny pieces for reuse as filling materials.
3. Ceramic and Tile
The waste on a construction or demolition site often includes ceramic and tile. These materials may be demolition debris, or the site may merely have extra materials on hand after the project is complete.
If they are in good condition, tile and ceramic may have some value for reuse in new projects. If a company cannot use these materials, it may still be able to sell the used materials or send them away for recycling.
A substantial amount of construction waste is wood, often from roof beams, wall supports and torn-up hardwood floors. A new construction project may end up with leftover wood after construction is complete, or it may generate wood shavings and scrap.
Wood materials in good condition, especially whole timber, must generally undergo cleaning, denailing and sizing before going on to be reused in future projects. Companies can also recycle used wood, often by having it chipped or shredded for use as a filler. Taking this approach helps keep valuable natural resources out of the landfill and reduces deforestation.
Generally, higher grades of wood have the most value for reuse or sale. Lower grades are sometimes profitable too — they may become pallets or pulpwood, for instance.
5. Insulation Materials
The waste at a construction site often includes insulation materials like these:
- Natural fibers
Especially at construction sites that involve demolishing older buildings, waste insulation materials may contain asbestos, which is hazardous because of the health risks it poses. Even inhaling very low concentrations of airborne asbestos particles can put a person in danger of developing lung disease.
If the waste insulation materials at a construction or demolition site contain even small amounts of asbestos, they are hazardous as well. Companies cannot reuse or recycle these materials — they must dispose of them properly, according to the applicable regulations.
Construction and demolition often produce glass waste in the form of old windows. This glass can sometimes be reused, or it can be recycled and melted down for new products. It may also be crushed and used as aggregate in concrete or repurposed for use in fiberglass.
Construction products often generate several different varieties of plastic waste. Plastic components on the roof and walls become waste after demolition, as do plastic piping, cable ducting, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding and window components, smoke detectors and light switch covers.
If construction companies cannot reuse their plastic waste, they may be able to recycle a large portion of it, depending on the capabilities of the municipality or waste disposal company. Plastic recycling often works best if the company separates and cleans the various types of plastic ahead of time. Mixed plastics and plastics that have come into contact with contaminants may make recycling more difficult.
8. Ferrous Metal
Ferrous metal — iron and its alloys, such as steel — often comes from old pipes in demolition projects. It has a high value for reuse and recycling. It can be recycled almost completely, so proper recycling leads to very little waste with these components. Ferrous metal also has the benefit of being repeatedly recyclable, so it can have a long life span across many different construction projects.
9. Nonferrous Metal
Nonferrous metals — metals other than iron — also have high value for reuse and recycling. Ferrous metals like aluminum, copper, lead and zinc are common in pipes and components like nails and rebar. Electrical wiring also contains valuable recyclable metals like copper and aluminum.
10. Stone and Clay
Construction and demolition projects sometimes produce stone and clay waste. Stone in exceptional condition may be a good candidate for reuse in future projects. Otherwise, crushing processes will pulverize the stone and clay into fine pieces for use in aggregate filler. The resulting gravel may find use in specialized products like thermal insulating concrete or become filler beneath roadbeds or driveways.
Grading a site for construction or digging the foundation for a building often produces large quantities of dirt as waste. Companies can sometimes sell their soil as a filler material to other construction sites that need to fill in holes. Highway and other infrastructure projects often need filler dirt, for instance.
If they cannot sell the dirt, or if the soil is rocky, contaminated or otherwise of poor quality, companies may have to pay for landfill or quarry disposal, often at a price of up to $200 per truckload. Estimates suggest that about 20% of the soil waste from construction projects ends up at dump sites like these.
12. Other Dredging Waste
Dredging waste encompasses the natural objects removed as the company prepares an empty site for construction. Besides soil, the waste often includes materials like these:
- Tree stumps
- Tree branches
- Whole trees
Not all the dredging materials have to go to landfills. Companies may send trees and stumps for chipping into mulch, for instance.
Construction and demolition sites tend to produce large volumes of drywall waste. Even if a site is working on new construction, it will likely have excess drywall left over after the project is complete.
Drywall is generally made of gypsum wallboard, which often contains flue gas desulfurization (FGD) gypsum. Questions have long persisted about whether the mercury levels in FGD gypsum render gypsum wallboard products hazardous. As of 2014, though, the EPA has concluded that these products do not pose any adverse environmental or health risks.
Many construction companies dispose of their drywall, but reuse and recycling are also options in many cases. Often, recycling processes pulverize old drywall into tiny pieces. These fine particles are useful in soil amendments like fertilizer and soil conditioner because the gypsum neutralizes soil acidity and increases water penetration.
Once a demolition crew has reduced an old home to rubble, they will likely find many shingles among the debris. If the shingles are in good condition, the company may reuse them in future projects.
If not, shingles are highly recyclable because of their asphalt content. Recycling companies can break down the shingles and send the asphalt on for reuse in asphalt pavements.
15. Hazardous Waste
Hazardous waste is any waste that poses a danger to human health or the environment. The EPA maintains extensive listings, waste classifications and recommended maximum contaminant levels for many types of hazardous waste.
On a construction or demolition site, potentially hazardous wastes include products like these:
- Aerosol cans.
- Fluorescent bulbs.
- Formaldehyde, as from adhesives or urea-formaldehyde foam insulation.
- Mercury-containing thermostats and boiler systems.
- Paint thinners.
- Paint strippers.
If construction sites contain hazardous materials, the company will need to abide by the state and federal regulations governing their disposal or face severe fines. Fortunately, a professional waste disposal company will be well versed in the ins and outs of these requirements and can help ensure your business’s compliance.
Construction Waste Management
Proper construction waste management is valuable for several reasons:
- It promotes environmental responsibility: It keeps excessive waste and toxic materials out of our soil and water.
- It supports public health: It keeps hazardous materials away from areas where people could come into contact with them and become ill.
- It encourages sustainability: It enables reuse and recycling of many materials and slows natural resource consumption.
- It saves money: Companies can reuse their construction waste and avoid disposal penalities.
To ensure the best construction waste management practices, it’s often helpful to partner with a trusted waste disposal company. A licensed, experienced company can help your construction business create an effective management plan and ensure your waste undergoes proper recycling or safe, responsible disposal.
Contact Environmental Recovery Corporation for Sustainable Construction Waste Management
To see the benefits of working with caring, knowledgeable, environmentally conscious waste management professionals, partner with ERC for construction waste removal and disposal.
We can manage the safe, responsible disposal of your waste and keep you in compliance with local and federal regulations. We have our own construction demolition recycling machinery already in place, so we can also handle your waste recycling needs, and we provide additional services like air and hydro excavation and soil remediation as needed. We also offer roll-off dumpsters in varying sizes to make waste sorting and disposal more convenient.
We pride ourselves on our innovative solutions and are happy to help you solve even your thorniest waste disposal challenges. Contact us today to schedule disposal services or learn more.