Many of us worked construction back in our student days. I remember being paid to knock a small office. A man with a big trailer then came along and removed the rubble to landfill, and we thought it was the most natural way of dealing with it.
Many years later I paid a contractor to remove a wall in my home to build an extension. He carefully removed all the hundred year old red bricks and stacked them neatly. What he did next really opened my eyes.
He sliced each brick lengthwise, turning the old bricks into new and unique tiles, which he sold to his next client for a very tasteful garden patio. He literally turned my rubble into money in his pocket. And that beats landfill every time.
How do you manage waste on a construction site?
Like every other waste problem, it does come down to management. You need to know what waste you produce, then you can decide what to do with it. There are a number of things to consider.
Most obviously the construction work itself produces heavy waste. If a hole is dug for a foundation, or to lay pipes, the soil and stone that come up needs to be dealt with. But there are other sources of waste. Materials you bring onto the site come in packaging. If you use pipes, planks, wire, guttering, what happens to the off-cuts?
Construction is an ever-evolving project, rather than a steady-state situation such as running an office or a shop. At different stages different levels of waste – and different waste materials – are produced. So a standard waste audit won’t tell you what you need to know. But you still have to analyze where your waste will come from, so that you can decide what to do with it.
How can we avoid construction waste?
Through careful planning we can keep waste to a minimum. It is tempting to buy things as they are needed, but it makes more sense to buy in bulk, and have what is needed on site for when it is required. This means we avoid individual packaging, cutting down on rubbish.
If possible we should use returnable containers and packing materials. And when that is not possible, we should see if we can use the packing materials again on the site.
This is because more than 10% of a construction project’s waste comes from cardboard alone. That can be reduced massively. And what you can’t eliminate, you can at least recycle.
Then look at your scrap. If you use three meters of a four meter pipe, for instance, can the fourth meter be used on another part of the build? Keep all the scrap in case it can be reused. This keeps expenses down, as well as keeping waste down.
If you use three quarters of a tin of paint, put the lid back on again. Avoid disposing of usable materials just because there is not enough in one container to finish the job.
If you mix things like glue or cement, measure your quantities carefully and only produce as much as you need. That way there is nothing to throw away at the end.
Minimizing waste on construction project sites
It all comes down to planning. A lot of construction site waste comes from inefficient purchasing. When you plan more, you spend less. Measure before you buy, and that way there will be less to throw away.
Then organise the construction site well. A little bit of thought can make a big difference. Group your recyclable and salvageable materials together, so that you don’t have to go looking for them, grow frustrated, and just dump stuff that is perfectly reusable.
And choose your suppliers wisely. If you want to move towards sustainability, use vendors that share your values. You want vendors that can supply exactly what you need, can deliver in bulk with minimum packaging, and that allow reuse, return, and recycling.
Most importantly, recycle and reuse salvageable materials. On a construction site you will find metal, cardboard, paper, plastic, wood and glass. All these materials can be salvaged. Then there are the concrete, gravel, and other aggregates that can be used for backfilling.
Construction waste and the circular economy
Construction (and demolition) accounts for a full third of all waste produced throughout the EU. That is why it is vital to try to apply the principles of the circular economy to the industry.
As PJ Rudden, founder of Aengus Consulting, and past president of Engineering Ireland, said: “The one area where the construction industry can influence the most significant change in climate resilience is in moving waste management more fully towards the circular economy model.”
Because of the volumes of waste produced by the construction industry it will not be easy to implement change. It will take time and effort, and it starts with the individual sites. But reducing waste reduces costs, which increases profits. Reusing materials reduces the price of a build. Managing waste effectively prevents the costs from spiraling out of control. Sustainability and circularity make economic sense.
When you see a builder turning red brick rubble into bespoke tiles you know the change is already happening on the ground.