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Creating a Circular Economy for the Construction Industry

Construction and demolition waste headed for landfills, now 548 million tons a year, is set to rise sharply

The construction industry faces unique challenges in reducing the volume of waste sent to landfills. But change is possible. Illustration courtesy of Recycle Track Systems.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs—and in the construction industry, the eggshells tend to be rather large. In fact, while the industry is most commonly associated with creation, the waste generated by both construction and demolition is a huge problem—a problem that has no easy solution.

In 2015, an estimated 548 million tons of construction and demolition waste were sent to landfills in the U.S., twice as much as standard municipal solid waste. What’s more, as demand for new housing, better infrastructure, and increasingly large industrial projects grows, that figure looks set to explode over the next decade.

The problem facing the industry today, particularly in light of society’s realization that sustainable systems must be implemented in order to address fast-depleting natural resources, is how to reduce and efficiently recycle the waste generated by construction and demolition activities. Dealing with the waste generated in the construction industry presents a broad range of challenges. When compared to other industries, there is little in the way of consensus on how best to deal with it.

First, the sheer tonnage and the bulk associated with waste materials means they are difficult to remove from the site and the waste takes up large areas in a landfill. Second, the broad range of different materials, combined with current demolition and waste management practices, means that waste streams are often highly contaminated and difficult to separate for recycling. Finally, standard waste management and recycling systems are simply unable to process the toxic elements found in the debris.

While many think the waste generated by the construction and demolition industry is simply an inevitable consequence of building, others are beginning to look for more sustainable solutions to address the growing issue of waste. Or, to put it more precisely, rather than attempt to address the problems posed by existing systems, many are attempting to guide the industry to adopt and entirely new approach.

Today, the concept of the circular economy is gaining traction in construction and demolition circles, and despite the many challenges associated with its implementation, I and others hope that it can drastically reduce the amount of waste generated even as the industry continues to grow.

What is a circular economy?

Put simply, the circular economy aims to replace existing take-make-waste systems that extract resources for use in current industrial models with a circular system that designs out waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use, and regenerates natural systems.

Its overarching goal is to redefine growth by decoupling economic activity from the use of finite resources and by placing value on waste as a commodity in itself. The circular economy identifies both technical and biological cycles; consumption occurs only in the biological cycle with the use of biodegradable materials that are fed back into the system through composting. The technical cycle on the other hand, recovers and restores products and components through reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycling.

How can the construction industry move forward

The circular economy concept has an extremely broad reach. In fact, it is designed to replace the foundations of our existing economy with a theoretical and practical approach that can be transferred from industry to industry. What does this mean in real terms for the construction and demolition industry? And how can a circular economy begin to tackle the huge amounts of waste produced annually?

As previously mentioned, the industry needs to move away from extraction, production, use, and elimination (often in landfills), towards valuing waste as a resource. This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • Source reduction: Reducing the volume of new materials should be a priority. Examples include preserving existing buildings, optimizing new build sizes, and prolonging the life of buildings.
  • Salvage and reuse: While salvage and reuse are already a part of the construction and demolition industry, new ways to repurpose and upcycle materials should be considered.
  • Waste separation: Waste that cannot be used must be efficiently separated and transported to the correct recycling facilities for processing.
  • Recycling: Recycling materials to be reused in the construction and demolition industry or in other areas should be improved, with new processes designed specifically for the construction and demolition industry.

The future of the circular economy in construction

While improving the efficacy of the above elements is a key step in pushing the construction and demolition industry towards a circular economy, the future promises to a provide even more opportunity. The circular economy is, essentially, a designed system, and in order to build a truly circular construction and demolition industry, new materials, tools, and systems that are designed to prevent waste should be a priority. Today, there are many innovative approaches that aim to help the construction and demolition industry become more circular. These include:

  • New materials: The use of concrete in construction is highly polluting. New, less toxic and more easily recyclable replacements must be designed. Today, various biodegradable materials such as hemp and mycelium are being trialed. The same goes for other unsustainable construction materials such as sand.
  • New building design: Designing buildings to make use of natural, biodegradable resources such as straw, soil, and bamboo as a core material will enable the C&D industry to move away from unsustainable materials such as concrete.
  • New construction methods: New construction methods that make use of modular building elements that can be used multiple times will enable easier repurposing and reduce the energy required during construction.
  • New waste management: The separation, logistical management, and recycling of materials can be streamlined and improved through the use of technology designed to make on-demand collections and insightful waste diversion metrics easier to access at all stages of the construction or demolition process.
  • New legislation: Government must begin to create new laws that support and subsidize these innovations.

While it is clear that there are many unique challenges facing the construction industry in a wholesale adoption of a circular economy, these changes are possible and entirely necessary. In a world where climate change is a real issue and stocks of non-renewable resources are quickly being used up, the construction and demolition industry will need innovative approaches to controlling waste. This fact, along with the huge volumes of waste generated by the industry, means that adopting exiting circular economy concepts and designing new systems that allow the industry to become more circular are crucial to its continued growth.

Adam Pasquale is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Recycle Track Systems, Inc., a waste management and recycling company.

2 Comments

  1. Doug McEvers | | #1

    It is common to hear builders say they can't incorporate more energy efficiency in their products and be competitive. One only has to look at the waste generated from a new construction project to see a shift in priorities and management would benefit all.

    1. John Clark | | #2

      Energy efficiency is not related to construction waste. Spec builders are cognizant of material waste because it impacts their bottom line.

      An energy efficient house isn't necessarily conducive to being easily recyclable. Actually most houses aren't because they really have nothing of value side from the wiring and lumber. Gone are the days of using sold wood doors, and solid hardwood plank floor. It's all about veneers, engineered floors, cement/composite siding, stucco, asphalt shingles, etc.

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