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With the construction of every new building comes a big pile of construction and demolition waste. On an annual basis, the construction and demolition industry creates more waste than any other industry in the United States. The average new construction project creates 3.9 pounds of waste per square foot, and the average demolition project creates 155 pounds of waste per square foot. Construction and demolition waste is a major environmental concern, but fortunately, construction professionals have a wide range of strategies to eliminate, reduce, and reuse construction and demolition debris, helping the environment and hopefully saving some money along the way.

Most construction waste ends up in landfills, but an increasing amount of construction waste is being removed from the waste stream in a process called diversion. Diverted materials are sorted for recycling and reuse. Metal, cardboard, paper, plastics, carpeting, and many other materials can be recycled and reused, often to the builder’s financial benefit.

As with any waste-related problem, the first step is simply to create less waste. Moving away from temporary support systems and structures as much as possible is an incredibly important way to eliminate waste in the construction process, as these temporary supports usually cannot be salvaged and get thrown away at the end of a project. For example, a modular metal form system used during concrete construction can be easily unmounted and reused for another project, avoiding wood waste from the use of plywood and lumber formwork.

While most construction waste cannot be completely eliminated, it can be reduced in both the planning and construction phases. For example, designing a building to fit standard material sizes helps reduce material waste. Builders can work with material suppliers to select material that uses minimal packaging, or even set-up an agreement to buy back any unused materials. On the job, construction professionals can choose to salvage materials from demolition projects, limit the use of adhesives wherever possible, and chip branches and trees cleared from the site for use as mulch.

Deconstruction provides a greener alternative to demolition. Selective deconstruction, also known as soft-stripping, involves going into a building before demolition and removing high-value materials such as lighting fixtures, hardwood flooring, and solid interior doors. Whole house deconstruction includes soft-stripping but goes a step further in salvaging the materials that make up the structure of the building itself, such as bricks and framing lumber. Deconstruction requires more labor and may take longer to complete than demolition, but due to the fact that most deconstruction is run by non-profits, the tax-deductible value of the donated materials can make deconstruction cost-competitive with demolition.

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