Recycling Construction Materials: An Important Part of the Construction Process


Written by:
Kimberly Cochran
Published:
June 1, 2007

As most contractors already know, construction and demolition (C&D) materials are those items left over at a construction, renovation or demolition site.

The most common materials are concrete, wood, drywall, asphalt shingles, asphalt pavement, metal and cardboard. These materials typically make up 70 to 95 percent of the discarded material at a residential or commercial site. They are often discarded but are actually valuable commodities that can be recycled into new products or used in many new ways. When perceived as waste, disposal of C&D materials is often viewed as simply part of the cost of doing business, and recycling and reusing these materials are sometimes overlooked as management options. Recycling can benefit a construction business’s bottom line, and it benefits the environment. 

Recycling Is Important to Your Business and the Environment  

Recycling C&D materials generated at a construction site is increasingly important. The environmental benefits of recycling can be significant. Current estimates show that if all concrete and asphalt pavement generated annually in the United States were recycled, it would save the energy equivalent of 1 billion gallons of gasoline or the removal of more than 1 million cars from the road. Much of this energy savings results from decreased consumption of natural resources, such as mining crushed stone or extracting and refining petroleum. In addition to energy savings, recycling also keeps materials out of landfills. C&D landfills are regulated at the state level and are considered to be safe. Literature suggests, however, that poorly managed landfills may face operational problems and groundwater contamination; predicaments that may become costly in the future. Recycling C&D materials can help avoid these problems.

Besides environmental benefits, recycling can have economic benefits for your business. Some recyclers charge less money to accept materials that can be recycled, especially if they are separated from other materials. Additionally, recycling or using material onsite can reduce your material hauling and disposal costs.   

The increased national interest in constructing green buildings is likely to generate more interest in recycling C&D materials. Providing knowledge of how to recycle C&D materials can make you a vital asset to a green building project. The most common method of green building certification in the United States is through the U.S. Green Building Council. The Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process requires that the building attain points for various green attributes, including energy savings, materials usage, indoor environmental quality and efficient water usage. Certification is granted during the construction phase. Points are given for reusing materials, using materials with recycled content and recycling the waste that is produced at the construction site. Different levels of certification can be attained depending on the number of points the building gains. Even if LEED certification is not the goal of the building owner, committing to recycling a certain percentage of the materials generated at a jobsite can be a great marketing tool and can give your company an edge over its competition.

Recycling and Reuse Options for Construction Materials

There are a variety of markets for C&D materials. You can contact local recyclers to determine what materials they accept and whether they require them to be to be separated (separation at the jobsite can increase the value of C&D materials; however, some recyclers do accept mixed loads of materials if separation at the jobsite is not feasible). The Construction Materials Recycling Association (CMRA) represents C&D materials recyclers nationwide and member recyclers are listed on their website, www.cdrecycling.org. The National Demolition Association lists buyers of C&D materials on their website, www.demolitionassociation.com. Table 1 describes how C&D materials are recycled and common markets for those materials.

Concrete can be recycled into many markets that currently use crushed stone. Because concrete is commonly recycled, numerous concrete recycling facilities exist across the country. For more information on recycling concrete, visit concreterecycling.org.

Asphalt pavement is heavily recycled currently and is commonly crushed and recycled back into asphalt, either in-place or at a hot-mix asphalt plant. Asphalt shingles can also be ground and recycled into hot-mix asphalt. Recycling asphalt pavement and shingles produces large energy savings over the life of the materials because of the energy-intensive process of creating asphalt binder from oil. For more information on recycling asphalt shingles, visit shinglerecycling.org.

Clean, untreated wood can be re-milled into lumber or chipped or ground and used to make engineered board, boiler fuel and mulch. For all markets, wood contaminated with lead-based paint or wood preservatives should be removed and managed according to local regulations.

Common metals found at a construction, demolition or renovation site include steel, aluminum, and copper. Construction sites frequently generate large amounts of cardboard waste when new appliances and materials are delivered to the site in cardboard boxes. Markets are well-established for metals and cardboard. Local metal scrap yards or recyclers that accept these materials are likely easily accessible.

Gypsum in drywall can be removed and recycled into many markets that commonly use gypsum, including new drywall manufacture, cement manufacture and agriculture. Drywall contaminated with lead-based paint should be removed prior to recycling and managed appropriately. For more information on drywall recycling, visit drywallrecycling.org.

Integrating Recycling into Your Business

An important first step in integrating recycling into your construction operation is to look for the local resources currently available. Contact local and state waste regulators and learn what is and is not permissible to recycle. Many state and local officials have lists of local recyclers and their locations that they can share with you. They may also be able to share guidance for best recycling practices in your area. Waste haulers may also know of recycling locations in the area.  

Since green building certification grants points based on recycled amounts, implementing a tracking system will aid you in attaining LEED points for recycling. Some contractors have their waste haulers report the amount of material that is currently disposed and recycled from their construction sites. That way, contractors can evaluate how they can increase the amount of material that is


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