Smart steps for dealing with construction waste


  • Focus on demolition to take a big bite out of construction waste.
  • Start early and get creative about reducing the sources of waste.
  • Remediate, reuse and recycle to cut waste and find new revenue streams.

For owners and contractors, construction waste costs are on the rise. High tipping fees and environmental safety requirements make controlling project waste a high priority. The good news is, not only can getting more proactive in handling project waste reduce project costs, it could also create a new revenue stream. Here are some tactics and strategies.

The demo connection

To really get a handle on your project waste stream, start with demolition. It accounts for a staggering 90 percent of all construction waste. Discarded materials following demolition may include concrete, bricks, asphalt, glass, wood, gypsum, plastic, metal, salvaged building components and landscaping debris.

Based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 report, concrete accounted for 70 percent of construction waste. Asphalt concrete made up another 15 percent, followed by wood (7%), drywall, bricks and plaster (4%), asphalt shingles (3%) and steel (1%). All told, demolition accounted for 518 million tons of waste in the U.S., while construction accounted for about 30 million tons.

To really impact the demolition waste stream you have to start during the scoping phase of the project. At this stage, the owner can make waste-reducing decisions about demolition by considering other uses for the spaces, reconfiguring spaces with an eye toward reusing, and adapting spaces for other uses. You might also identify components you could disassemble and reuse elsewhere, using different construction methods, and changing interior finishes to eliminate unnecessary demolition.

The idea is to reduce the overall waste produced by demolition activities. Once you know the demolition scope, list the materials you expect to encounter during demolition, and decide how you’ll deal with them through remediating, reusing or recycling.

Analyze Your Processes

Construction processes evolve, and some are wasteful right from the start. Ten years ago it was common to double up on top plates, build corners with four studs and use jack studs at all openings. That required excess framing materials and reduced the effectiveness of insulation. New framing methods can replace these wasteful practices. As you plan and schedule the job, think about how you can improve methods to reduce waste.

See if this sounds familiar: You have materials of specific sizes lined up for specific uses, and somebody uses them for something else.

What about how you use materials? You probably have room for improvement that can net you savings and improve project performance once construction begins.

See if this scenario sounds familiar: You have materials of specific sizes lined up for specific uses, and somebody uses them for something else. Did your fascia lumber get used for blocking? Or, did your truss braces end up being cut to size for studs?

When people use the wrong materials it also often costs you extra in labor and material handling, not to mention generating more waste. While you’re at it, tackle the issues of poor material staging and storage to reduce damage and loss from weather and excessive handling.


During demo and construction, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and lead are the most notable harmful materials, but there are also materials containing mercury, mold, refrigerants and more.

Depending on the substances, and your state and local laws, you will have to follow specific steps to contain them, or hire specialists to do it. On remodels and renovations, it’s wise to have contract language giving you options to avoid extra costs when you encounter environmental issues. A thorough discovery before bidding should include destructive analysis where you take apart and examine small aspects of the project to see what’s lurking out of sight.

When doing a remodel, or any job requiring demolition, your initial inventory should include all items that are still usable.

You can’t see asbestos insulation on pipes inside walls unless you open up a section of the wall. Hidden leaks behind tubs and showers often feed mold growth inside floor cavities. For everything you can’t see or expose through destructive discovery, you’re left to rely on contractual terms to protect you from higher than expected costs. Dealing with these items before construction begins improves worker safety and your profits, and clears the path for two other important waste management tactics: reusing and recycling.


If you’ve watched the relentless march of products and finishes coming and going in the interior decoration market, you know it’s just a matter of time before what’s in vogue today becomes tomorrow’s renovation waste. Some trends, like avocado-colored appliances, go out of style and never come back, while others—like metallic finishes and various tile sizes—ebb and flow in popularity.

When doing a remodel, or any job requiring demolition, your initial inventory should include all items that are still usable, even if they’re outdated. Old cabinets can find new life in a garage or workshop. An old refrigerator could be just the ticket for someone’s cabin in the woods. Weathered lumber is now popular for interior accent walls, and used windows have many reuse options.

As old structures get removed from the building stock, there are fewer and fewer places where designers can get their hands on old architectural gems like crafted woodwork, vintage lighting, old doors, vintage locksets and vintage plumbing fixtures. When you encounter these architectural items, you’ve found a waste stream that’s increasingly valuable.


Most construction waste ends up in landfills. But, it doesn’t need to. Gypsum recyclers, metal recyclers and wood recyclers will all gladly accept your scraps and help them find new uses. Here are some other resources to help you make smarter waste stream decisions:

National Demolition Association
Construction & Demolition Recycling Association
National Association of Homebuilders
Shingle Recycling

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