Construction Waste Management – the Sleeping Giant

Douglas P. Casper

December 2010

Responsible handling of construction waste is quickly rising to the forefront of concerns that construction professionals have to grapple with. It has always been lurking in the background, however – now, with increased interest in complying with various sustainable design guidelines, as well as an urge to satisfy basic yearnings for a cleaner, more energy efficient world, it appears intractably lodged in our collective consciousness as an issue that must be dealt with.

We will review the basic principles of construction waste management, look at some of the main governmental, as well as not-for-profit organizations to see how they have addressed the subject, and finally consider the realities of what options are open to us, as designers, and how can we pursue them. There are some raging controversies focusing on, first, whose responsibility should construction waste management be and, second, how to effectively monitor and verify the veracity of ongoing construction waste data that is being produced. Despite the controversies, design professionals need to proceed with a steady hand and, with that in mind, we have provided some practical advice regarding how to develop and administer a successful construction waste management program.

Basic Considerations:

We need to reduce our waste. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) states: “Waste is lost raw material, lost product, lost resource, lost profit. Generating significant amounts of waste is not sustainable for today's society. Nearly everything we do leaves behind some waste. In the United States, as well as in the rest of the world, accelerating pressures on natural resources, the impact of new technologies on resource use, increasing waste generation, and the need for more sustainable approaches to using natural resources represent new challenges to our society.1”

The US waste stream consists of 245 million tons of waste generated annually (2005 figures). The good news is that in 1960 we were only recycling 6.4% of our waste; in 2005 that figure jumped to 32.1%.2 Construction waste makes up 40% of the US waste stream. It is not widely known what percentage of construction waste is being recycled, but there is a concerted effort on the part of people and organizations in progressive states, such as California and Massachusetts to greatly increasing the recycling percentages by issuing edicts.

The USEPA’s concerns mirror those of all the major “Green” organizations: they are asking us to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We will explore how that translates into reducing construction waste on our ongoing projects.

Construction waste has, up until now been the province of the contractors. Now, with greater concern for sustainable building – it is becoming, increasingly the responsibility of the architect/engineer.

Part of the dilemma is that we are simply running out of places to bring construction waste. The last available landfill site in the New York Metropolitan area, Fresh Kills, on Staten Island, stopped receiving waste in 1996. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania recently added a $4 per ton tax on waste, causing a lot of construction waste now to be diverted to Ohio by either truck or rail. Tipping fees for construction waste taken to transfer stations in NYC are running between $60-80 per ton.

What is Construction Waste?

There are two different components to construction waste: the carting fee and the tipping fee. The carting fee is the cost of actually hauling the trash to a tipping station. The tipping fee refers to the cost of handling the waste and either putting it in a landfill, reusing or recycling it. Currently the only major construction material that has a negative combined carting and tipping fee is scrap metal, meaning: the salvage value of the material is greater than the cost of disposing of it. (If you don’t tie down loose scrap metal at the job site – it will “walk-away,” of its own accord.)

What about all of the other building materials? It is still cheaper/easier to simply transport to a landfill; however, aside from this being environmentally irresponsible, there are surprisingly high salvage or recycling values to many of these materials (and assemblies).

A hidden aspect of construction waste is what happens to major items, such as elevators, escalators, and other such equipment which the architect simply signs-off as waste, but can actually have a value into the tens of thousands of dollars. The creative use of these items (may already be) and certainly will become the next cottage industry in the New area.

What can we, as Designers do about it? The first step is to realize the nature of the problem. To begin with, there is a tremendous drive to build (or un-build, if you will) in a Green manner. With that said, let’s consider what all this entails. As the project designer you can create a sustainable building three ways: first, through the use of an energy efficient building envelope; second, by specifying high-performance HVAC & R (Heating, Ventilating Air Conditioning and Refrigeration) equipment; and lastly, by reducing the amount of resources that are wasted either in the gathering of materials that will make up the building or in dealing with the scrap building materials generated during construction or deconstruction. Deconstruction is a new term , listed, as follows, in Wikipedia: “In the context of physical construction, deconstruction is the selective dismantlement of building components, specifically for re-use, recycling, and waste management. Deconstruction has also been defined as “construction in reverse”. The process of dismantling structures is an ancient activity that has been revived by the growing field of sustainable, green building. Buildings, like everything, have a life-cycle. Deconstruction focuses on giving the materials within a building a new life once the building as a whole can no longer continue. When buildings reach the end of their useful life, they are typically demolished and hauled to landfills. Implosions or ‘wrecking-ball’ style demolition is relatively inexpensive and offers a quick method of clearing sites for new structures. On the other hand, this method of thinking dictates a wasteful process. It is important to realize that many of the components within old buildings remain almost as, if not more, valuable than at the time the building was constructed. Deconstruction is a method of harvesting what is commonly considered “waste” and reclaiming it into useful building material. Deconstruction helps to close the resource loop that we now realize is so valuable in this world of finite resources.3” In addition to many state and municipal governments – particularly the New York City Government, there are green organizations – particularly the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) that have published extensive guidelines on the subject of Construction Waste Management. The USGBC, in its new Construction and Major Renovation program (LEED-NC, Version 2.2 – 2005) asks that a building recycling plan be set up (Prerequisite 1, under Materials and Resources - MR). It then awards either one or two credits (MR 2.1 & 2.2) for recycling either 50% or 75% of construction waste. The USGBC’s program for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB, Version 2.0 – 2005) calls for the establishment of an ongoing maintenance program, to be recertified by the Council every five years. For this reason the requirements outlines in LEED-EB are much more extensive than are the LEED-NC requirements (for waste management). LEED-EB contains 28 pages of text, compared to only 9 pages of text appearing in LEED-NC.

LEED-EB has three Prerequisites: MR 1.1 – Waste Management Policy and Waste Stream Audit, MR 1.2 – Storage & Collection of Recyclables, Prerequisite 2 – Toxic Material Source Reduction, and Credits MR 1.1 & 1.2 – Construction, Demolition and Renovation. These two credits are identical to Credits 2.1 & 2.2, under LEED-NC. The thinking behind requiring the building owners/managers to institute a waste recycling program for non-construction waste is that, without this level of commitment – it would be very difficult to be able to institute a construction waste management plan, which is much more involved. Establishing a Construction Waste Management Plan So how to proceed in establishing a construction waste management plan? There are some contentious issues that affect the ability of a construction professional to be able to establish and then successfully administer a plan.

There are two approaches to construction waste management: source separation and separation at a remote breakdown facility and there are justifications for following either method. As a backdrop to this, let it be known that there is a dearth of standards that presently exist. There is also some question as to who should be responsible: the government or a not-for-profit group that can administer the process. The other option, the option established in the LEED Guidelines requires the design professional to “self certify.” LEED guidelines call for construction waste to be measured either by weight or volume and do not include fill material (asphalt, concrete, soil, etc.) as construction waste. These materials can be easily ground and reused on or nearby the construction site and have no need to be taken long distances away. Some carters have installed scales in their trucks, in order to be able to measure the quantities of waste involved. This is, in all likelihood, a great idea, only there are no municipal, state, or federal regulations controlling this kind of activity. The State of California, probably the most advanced state, when it comes to construction waste management, has enacted a law that requires 50% of all construction waste to be recycled. If other states or municipalities, such as in our area, would institute such a plan – the confusion of carters driving mixed trucks where some of the waste is destined to sorting facilities and the balance (the orphan waste) going to landfills plus New York would instantly become a Greener city. What this means is that, when a design professional submits a project to be a LEED Certified building: there are no outside auditors; the entire validation process and all submissions to the USGBC are based on documentation put together by the design professional, with little governmental oversight. (Isn’t it interesting to note that an entirely different process is used in Great Britain and France where either a government auditor (in France) or an independent agency (in Great Britain) checks all aspects of the design and construction to ensure that a certain quality level is being maintained?) Specifically, with regard to construction waste management, some individuals – such as Justin Green, of Build It Green! NYC; and John Okun, of Filco Carting – are dedicated to source breakdown, which can maximize the percentage of recycled waste as well as conserve resources by minimizing shipping costs. Source breakdown involves first removing any salvage material (reusable ceiling tile, gypsum wallboard, brick, ceramic tile, lighting fixtures, etc.) and, then, breaking down the waste into the following basic groups: metal, wood, masonry, cardboard – with the rest going to a landfill. The opposite approach is taken by carters, such as Dave Dipisa, of Cardella Trucking – who cart the construction waste to their breakdown facility in New Jersey. Although there is some variation, on a project to project basis, Cardella boasts of consistently being able to recycle or reuse over 75% of the waste stream. Because so many people are now involved in recycling construction wastes – the recycling costs are going down. The NJ DEP recently provided these figures for recycling:

Item Cost per ton
Asphalt debris $5.70
Concrete rubble $4.84
Bricks and block $5.49
Trees and stumps $37.69
Wood scrap $46.43

In the NJ DEP study, steel has a scrap value of $60 per ton and aluminum and copper have scrap value of $500 per ton. Office Procedures to be Instituted How does the construction professional ensure that his or her project will be a winner, from a construction waste management perspective? The first step, of course, is to convince the owner or public authority controlling the project that “Green” features must be incorporated. (This is a “no-brainer” for municipal work in NYC because the Local Law 58, enacted in 2005 affective January 1, 2007) requires all projects greater than $2,000,000 in budget to be the equivalent of a LEED Silver rating. To get a LEED rating, it is necessary that you set up a recycling plan (see LEED-NC, Materials and Resources - MR Prerequisite 1). It is, then, the designer’s option whether or not to try for the two credits for recycling construction waste. They may not be the easiest two points to achieve but, they are undoubtedly two of the most important. In order to ensure compliance – the design architect/engineer must include a Construction Waste Management Specification to Divison 1 – General Requirements of the Specifications Book. This section will outline the procedures the contractor must follow to break down construction waste, submittal requirements, and whatever administrative requirements that might be needed to ensure compliance. Decide in advance what items should be recycled and which items need to be salvaged. It may pay, at this point to involve an expert in the field who can much faster and more efficiently than the normal design architect, structure a workable recycling plan. Some materials are harder than others to find a “home” for. The more detailed documentation you have on such materials as specialty glass, wood veneers, etc. the more successful your recycling plan will be. Certain materials, such as gypsum drywall must be stored under cover in a dry place and shipped to a factory that reuses the gypsum material, so detailed arrangements have to be made in advance or the recycling effort will fall by the wayside. Include extra time for contract administration duties required to ensure a successful recycling campaign. New York City’s Department of Design and Construction has a sample specification that can be downloaded from the Internet4, or you can use a national standard specification, such as AIA’s MasterSpec as the basis for your specification. Now is the time to retool yourselves so that you are equipped to release a quality construction waste management spec and take control of your green projects. There is good news! California has a statewide goal of diverting 50% of its solid waste stream. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has released it’s “Beyond 2000 Solid Waste Master Plan. This plan’s goal is the diversion of 88% of Mon-Municipal Solid Waste by 2010. In addition, effective July, 2006 – the following materials have been banned from the waste stream: asphalt paving, brick, concrete, metal, wood and cardboard. We’re headed towards a cleaner future sooner, as opposed to later.