How do I dispose of my construction waste without bruising my environmental conscience?

construction waste bin
The trash in this bin could be someone else's treasure. See more pictures of green living.
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­Out with the old and in with the new is an exciting prospect when you're anticipating a new construction project. You've been dreaming about those new hardwood floors, so it's hard to give a lot of thought to what's going to happen to the hideous tile floor once it's outta there. You're just glad it's gone. But what if that old tile could be re-used?

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 136 million tons of construction waste was generated in the United States, which accounts for 25 to 40 percent of the national solid waste stream [source: Whole Building Design Guide]. This has more of an impact than just burdening landfills -- materials that contain solvents or chemically treated wood can also cause soil and water pollution.


­With environmental awareness on the forefront, green demolition is popping up all over the country as an alternative to the wrecking ball, and it's called deconstruction. Trained construction crews come in and carefully dismantle a building, harvesting everything that could feasibly be reused or recycled. These salvaged materials make it back into the marketplace rather than doing time in a landfill. This process takes longer and costs more, but it's also important to consider the nonfinancial benefits, like creating less of an impact on the Earth. And there are some cost benefits to going the green route as well. We'll talk about these in our next section.

Green Demolition and Material Recovery Facilities

Green demolition, aka green deconstruction, is a booming industry, even in our sagging economy. Going the green route keeps around 80 percent of construction waste out of a landfill, but also costs more than your average demolition job -- by about $10,000. Most of these additional charges go to labor because carefully removing items takes longer than going in with a bulldozer. But you can get some of this money back. You'll save on landfill charges and get tax credits for material donations.

Green demolition is also necessary for LEED Certification, which is a system of standards developed by the United States Green Building Council to promote environmentally sustainable construction. LEED Certification gives added value to a construction project, and credits are given to a new project that diverts at least half of its construction waste from landfills.


Each state has different laws for how materials need to be separated and dealt with. For example, Connecticut law states that cardboard and scrap metal must be separated from other construction waste. Onsite separation involves creating separate bins for different materials so they can be easily taken to the correct facilities. The benefit is that the materials are usually in better shape when they arrive at the processing facility, and are therefore worth more when they're resold.

The alternative to onsite separation is taking the waste to facilities that accept bulk deliveries. These plants have the ability to sort multiple materials, so construction sites can just use one big trash container. There's an additional charge for sorting, but this money can be recouped in the time it saves on the construction site.

Green demolition is becoming mandatory in cities like San Diego, Calif. Developers have to pay a hefty deposit when they file for a permit, and they'll only get their deposit back if they can prove that at least 50 percent of their construction waste has been recycled or reused.

Once companies work out their methods and train their crews, the cost differences are minimized between traditional demolition and deconstruction. In our next section, we'll talk about what materials can be recycled.


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Construction

Reduce, reuse, recycle are the three "R's" of waste management, and this phrase has long been the battle cry for avid environmentalists. People generally use the term "recycling" as a blanket term for all of these acts, but recycling really means processing old materials and turning them into new products. Recycling is actually the least cost-effective method, so reducing and reusing are very important distinctions in the cycle.

Reducing waste during a construction project involves careful planning. Construction materials come in standard sizes, so if you design your project with these dimensions in mind, it can greatly cut down on excess that gets thrown away. Wood, drywall and cardboard make up around three-quarters of all job site waste, so these three items particularly should be considered.


Reusing waste may be the most important part of the cycle, because this is where you have the most opportunities to assuage your green conscience. Here are some of the materials that can be reused if they're harvested properly:

  • Wood floors and beams
  • Doors and windows
  • Appliances and fixtures
  • Tile and carpet
  • Roofing materials and aluminum siding
  • Bricks
  • Pipes

Brick and drywall scraps can be used as backfill, and shingles that are in good shape can be used for a new roof. Wood beams can be installed in another home, or used in the garden to build raised beds. And salvaged wood flooring is a highly sought after item for renovators who are rehabbing older homes and desire original details, especially since many sizes of old floorboards are no longer manufactured.

Recycling waste is the last of the three R's, because it is the least desirable for several reasons. If a recycling facility isn't located nearby the construction site, transportation costs make recycling too expensive. Also, the process of recycling itself can be costly, and not all materials can be recycled. But of course, recycling is preferable to using landfills. Drywall scraps can become textured wall sprays, acoustical coatings and agricultural products. Roof shingles can be recycled into asphalt pavement, and cardboard containers from material shipments can be recycled into boxes and other packaging materials. In our next section, we will talk about how to reduce, reuse and recycle in your own home improvement projects.


Home DIY Construction Removal

habitat for humanity
The rock band Linkin Park works with Habitat for Humanity to build a house. The charitable organization takes all kinds of donations, including lumber, appliances and paint.
Sean Gardner/Stringer/Getty Images

­It isn't always practical or affordable to hire a deconstruction crew for small home renovation projects, especially if you're on a budget. Fortunately, there are many things you can do on your own to keep your do-it-yourself (DIY) project on the green track.

One way to reduce waste is to find ways to work around something rather than tearing it out. For example, if you have an old tile floor or backsplash that you want to replace, you may be able to just tile over it. This not only saves costly trips to the landfill, it will also save your back. Tile is very heavy and requires a lot of elbow grease to remove. You might have a popcorn ceiling that you loathe, so it's good to know that instead of taking the labor-intensive crowbar approach, you can install thin sheets of drywall over it to create a nice, smooth surface.


There are some safety issues that are also important to consider when determining how to approach a home renovation project. If you live in a house built before 1978, there's a good chance you have lead paint on your walls. If you're not sure, you can buy home tests from local hardware stores. If you do find lead paint, your best bet is to cover it up with wallpaper or a fresh coat of new paint. If you decide you do have to take the wall down, you should consult a professional.

Another way to keep your construction waste out of landfills is to donate materials. Habitat for Humanity accepts items like lumber, old appliances, large pieces of drywall and leftover paint. Salvage yards are popular shopping destinations for home rehabbers, and they'll gladly accept items such as doors and windows, especially if they come from older houses.

You can also list your discarded materials on Craigslist or Freecycle. As they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure, and that pile of bricks sitting in your yard may be perfect for someone's garden. Also, many modern artists and crafters are using reclaimed materials in their work. So if you're lucky, you may just end up with a wallet made out of roof shingles.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks


  • Binsacca, Rich. "Efficient Design and Building Practices Can Effectively Reduce Your Waste Stream and Boost Your Bottom Line." Eco Home. October 6, 2008.
  • "Construction Waste." - A sourcebook for green and sustainable building.
  • "Construction Waste Management." Davidson, Alex. "Green Demolition." Forbes Magazine. June 30, 2008.
  • "Demolition and Deconstruction Services - There's an Art to Green Salvage!" V's Demolition Inc. - company website.
  • "Federal Green Construction Guide for Specifiers." Whole Building Design Guide. May 25, 2007.
  • "Green Building: Management of Residential Construction Waste for The Single Family Home Building Contractor." Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
  • "Green Demolition." - company website.
  • Hudgins, Matt. "Constructive Destruction: Demolition Goes Green." National Real Estate Investor. October, 8, 2008.
  • "Lead In Paint, Dust and Soil." United States Environmental Protection Agency.
  • "Minimize Construction Waste." Today's Green October 11, 2008.
  • Napier, Tom. "Construction Waste Management." Whole Building Design Guide. July 21, 2008.