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September 2011: “The Journey to Reducing Construction Waste”

September 2011: “The Journey to Reducing Construction Waste”

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By Bob Webb, CEO, Myers & Chapman, Inc.
September 7, 2011

Commercial construction waste reduction is a good news story. Micheal Talbert, Manager of Construction and Demolition Waste Recycling for Mecklenburg County states that there has been a dramatic improvement in reducing commercial construction waste over the last few years.

Let’s back up and look at what is happening with construction waste. As little as 20 years ago, most in the construction industry did not worry about how much waste they generated. All we focused on was production, which meant having plenty of material on the site for the project and not worrying about generating unnecessary trash. Disposing of trash was cheap to the contractor.

Through the efforts of the USGBC and other organizations, we gradually became aware of the cost and other long term negative effects of so much waste and practices began changing for the better. There isn’t any reliable data on exactly how much we have reduced over-all commercial construction waste in the past 20 years but my educated guess is at least 40%!

Most reputable commercial contractors have waste recycling programs. The results vary by company but most that are active in this area achieve at least a 50% recycled component. At Myers & Chapman, we have consistently been recycling in excess of 70% for the last couple of years.

Today, the most significant piece of waste reduction is through recycling. In addition, ways that we are reducing waste is to:
• Avoid ordering excess materials
• Better plan and use the materials that we have
• Reuse what otherwise may have been waste materials (i.e. Habitat Restore, etc.)

So how has the recycling piece improved so dramatically and what else do we need to do to improve? The major components of an effective recycling program include:
• Education and understanding
• Services to handle and use the recycled or composted elements
• Cost effective solutions, as most businesses are driven by the bottom line

The reason we are able to recycle and/or reuse these items, and even be paid for some, is because a market has developed for these waste streams. If you go to Asheville, you would not be able to cost-effectively recycle as many items because the infrastructure is not in place. In you go to San Francisco, Portland, etc., many more items could be profitably recycled. This is in part because they have tipping fees 2-3 times higher (Mecklenburg County is $39/ton and other areas are in excess of $100/ton) than we do, and because government mandates require it, so the recycling infrastructure is there.

Going forward, we will need to:
• Continue to grow the reuse and recycling infrastructure;
• Have product manufacturers assume a greater responsibility for recyclability in their design;
• Improve the business case for reducing waste; and
• Get much better at reducing the amount of waste that we generate at a construction site.

The AIA+2030 Challenge of building carbon-neutral buildings by 2030 is an important and compelling goal of the architectural community. The contracting community needs to piggy-back on this effort and make a commitment to zero construction waste going to the landfills by 2030.