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Residential Construction Waste: From Disposal to Management


Here's Why

For many builders, construction waste disposal is simply a necessary evil, an unavoidable cost of doing business. Here are four reasons why you might begin managing this stream of materials, just as you do other aspects of your business:

  • Cost
    A recent NAHB survey reported that a typical builder pays $511 per house for construction waste disposal. Your disposal costs may rise as old landfills close and new ones become more difficult to site and more costly to design and operate.
  • Efficiency
    If materials are wasted on your job site, you pay twice -- once at purchase and again when the usable material is hauled off for disposal. Knowing what materials end up in your dumpster can tell you a lot about how efficiently your crews and subcontractors are using materials that affect your bottom line.
  • Liability
    As a generator of some potentially hazardous materials -- certain paints, solvents, adhesives, caulks--you must protect yourself from any potential liability resulting from the unauthorized or illegal disposal of hazardous wastes.
  • Marketing
    As you begin managing your construction waste, take credit for being a good corporate neighbor and protecting resources. Let the buying public know that as you build, you are striving to protect the natural environment.

Here's how

  • Know what you throw. Opportunities for reducing waste start with a working knowledge of what is discarded. Although some information on the general nature of residential construction waste is available (see table) and will be addressed below, only you can tell how materials are being used on your job site. Routinely inspecting your construction waste can reveal much about the efficient use of materials by your crew and subcontractors.

    Builders should also be aware of the need to assess hazardous waste generation on the job site. Hazardous waste management should be guided by a working knowledge of both the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). NAHB's The Regulation of Solid and Hazardous Waste: A Builder's Guide is an excellent reference. Call (800) 368-5242 and ask the Environmental Regulations Department for a copy.

  • Eliminate waste before it starts. If you, the builder, are paying for all materials and all disposal, your crews have little incentive to use your materials or the disposal services efficiently. "Supply and install" subcontracts, in which the responsibility for ordering and purchasing materials is assumed by each subcontractor, can help maximize the efficient use of material. In addition, making subcontractors responsible for their own waste disposal creates a natural incentive for minimizing waste.
"Typical" Construction Waste Estimated for a 2,000-Square-Foot Home
Material Weight (in pounds) Volume (in cubic yards)*
Solid Sawn Wood 1,600 6
Engineered Wood 1,400 5
Drywall 2,000 6
Cardboard (OCC) 600 20
Metals 150 1
Vinyl (PVC)** 150 1
Masonry*** 1,000 1
Hazardous Materials 50 -
Other 1,050 11
Total 8000 50

*Volumes are highly variable due to compressibility & captured air space in waste materials.
**Assuming three sides of exterior clad in vinyl siding.
***Assuming a brick veneer on home's front facade.

  • Reuse. Several waste materials, regardless of quantity, can be reused: fiberglass and rigid insulation; slightly damaged finished products such as cabinets and doors; large pieces of clean carpet and vinyl flooring; and masonry/concrete material. Insulation materials can be placed in attic space and larger rigid insulation scraps can be used under concrete floors. Cosmetically damaged finish products can be donated to nonprofit organizations and taken as a tax-exempt charitable donation. Flooring sheet goods can be neatly rolled and stored for the homeowner. All brick and concrete waste is inert fill that can be used on site under walkways or driveways. Individually, these materials do not fill dumpsters but collectively they can send your total from one or two containers per job to two or three, significantly increasing total disposal costs.
  • Reconsider roll-off service. The standard 30-cubic-yard roll-off container can represent a big portion of your total disposal costs. It can also encourage the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" problem; the six-foot-high sides of roll-off containers can make wasteful practices difficult to monitor. An alternative is to fence off with rolled wire or plastic mesh a small portion of the job site and use a hauler who manually or mechanically picks up construction waste materials from the fenced area. This eliminates containers and can decrease the degree to which useful materials ending up in your waste pile.
  • Recycle. Most residential construction waste is recyclable, including wood (solid-sawn and engineered products), drywall, corrugated cardboard, metal, and some plastics. Recovery opportunities for building materials cannot be developed by builders alone but must be done in cooperation with waste haulers and processors, local and state solid waste officials, and product manufacturers. The best way to discover existing or to develop new recovery opportunities in your area is to bring this group together. If alternatives to disposal are important to you, encourage your local HBA and/or local officials to hold a forum to explore obstacles and opportunities for recovering waste.
  • Market your efforts. As you take the time and initiative to manage your construction waste stream more effectively, let your customers know. One suggested marketing tool is to provide your homebuyers with a trash container that has your company's logo and a recycling symbol forming the roof line of a house. Accompanying this homeowner "moving-in gift" is a one-page brochure explaining your company's construction waste management program and the total landfill space per year your company is conserving. Regardless of the approach, be sure to take credit for your efforts.

Here's what to try

  • Wood
    Wood waste accounts for 40 percent to 50 percent of the residential construction waste stream. Wood waste can be used for mulch, in composting operations, animal bedding, landfill cover, some building products, and as an industrial fuel source. For many of these applications, however, there is concern with regard to the adhesive content of engineered wood products such as plywood, oriented strandboard (OSB), or wood I-beams. Up to half of jobsite wood waste can be engineered wood product waste. Contact local wood waste processors to determine the suitability of your wood waste for their markets. This is a good example of how a local forum would be helpful in identifying recycling obstacles and opportunities.

  • Drywall
    Drywall waste makes up about 15 percent of jobsite waste, which is the equivalent of one pound per square foot of living space. Clean waste gypsum board, after being ground, can be recycled into new drywall, used for some types of animal bedding, or applied as a soil amendment. Drywall manufacturing plants across the country are gradually gaining the technology for recycling construction site waste, but few plants can currently take significant quantities. Some states allow agricultural uses of ground gypsum wallboard, some do not, and some have no stated policy. Research has been recently undertaken to determine the suitability of various agricultural uses of waste gypsum board, with results available within the next 12 months.

    It can be cost-effective to cut and stack waste drywall into uninsulated wall cavities. Care must be taken to place pieces securely to prevent rattling, to choose framing cavities without wiring runs, and to use cavities in closets, basements, and garages in which interference with subsequent additions or renovations is less likely. This approach addresses any concerns of the homebuyer or other trades.

  • Cardboard
    Corrugated cardboard is the most common building product packaging material. Quantities are increasing as more and more building components are delivered to jobsites as finished products. Although cardboard may not contribute much to total weight, it can represent as much as 30 percent of the total volume and, unconsolidated, can send your jobsite dumpster to the landfill long before it is necessary. You can handle this material yourself, engage a nonprofit organization such as the Boy Scouts of America, or see if a local hauler is interested.

  • Siding
    Vinyl and metal siding cut-off waste typically generated from a single home can be over 200 pounds. Although it does not represent a significant portion of your disposal costs, it is the only waste other than cardboard generated by your siding subcontractor. If it is returned to a central collection area, such as a siding or building supply distributor, it can contribute to quantities large enough to warrant recycling. At least one pilot project is being conducted to evaluate centralized vinyl siding waste collection.

New methods

  • On-site
    It is possible to grind up all wood waste and drywall and apply it to the site just before seeding or sodding the lot. Many states or localities, however, require evidence that this approach does not harm soil or water quality. You need to check with state and local solid waste agencies to determine the acceptability of this method. If all wood waste and drywall could be handled in this way, containment, transport, and landfilling costs would be eliminated for up to 65 percent of jobsite waste. If cardboard can be included, cost savings would be even higher. A low-speed, low-noise, mobile grinding unit is best suited for job-site service. Large production builders may consider purchase of the equipment. Smaller builders would have to arrange service with a hauler or waste processor interested in this method of waste management.
  • Clean-up
    In Portland, Oregon, and Chicago, Illinois, builders are being serviced by haulers that charge by the square foot, do not require roll-off containers, and recycle more than 50 percent of jobsite waste. The clean-up services time their waste pick-up to coincide with the various stages of construction, allowing wood, cardboard, drywall, or other materials to be substantially separated by the building process. The builder knows waste disposal costs upfront, can determine the level of service required (number of jobsite visits and degree of clean-up), and saves money while someone else determines what can and cannot be recycled. So far, clean-up services have been cost-effective in areas that have high disposal costs and established recycling markets for common construction waste materials.