Recycling and reusing construction debris

by Krista Reisdorf

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 164 million tons of building-related construction and demolition (C & D) debris was generated in 2003 compared with 134 million tons in 1996. The rate of debris generated per capita in 2003 was 3.1 pounds per person per day compared with 2.8 pounds per person per day in 1996.

In addition, in 2003, building demolitions accounted for 53 percent (86 million tons per year) of the building-related waste stream; renovations accounted for 38 percent (62 million tons per year); and new construction accounted for 9 percent (15 million tons per year).

Although this information may be discouraging, there is good news. Recycling and reusing materials salvaged in C & D are becoming more popular practices in the U.S.

In fact, as of June 2004, more than 1,000 asphalt and concrete recycling facilities, 700 wood waste recycling facilities and 300 "mixed-waste" facilities recycled demolition debris in the U.S. Reusing or recycling materials during C & D can have significant and long-term benefits, including reduced project costs; alleviating the environmental effects of extracting, transporting and processing raw materials; conserving space in landfills; helping communities, contractors and building owners comply with state and local policies regarding C & D; and boosting the public image of companies and organizations that recycle.


Recovering materials during C & D requires separating materials from contaminants, such as broken glass, and sorting them accordingly. Recovery is said to be easier if there is space on the job site for sorting materials, but some contractors use off-site C & D materials processing firms. Cost-effectiveness of recovery can be determined by factors such as the value of the materials, as well as the costs of hauling, disposal and labor. More than 200 used building materials stores across the U.S. buy and/or accept donations of used building materials, and you can avoid the removal costs by allowing private companies to salvage materials from the sites.

To determine what can be recycled or reused, you can talk to those who have recovered materials on similar projects; check out directories published by state and local governments that list recyclers and materials they accept; look up recyclers and used building materials stores in the telephone book; or ask building site materials management firms and companies to handle the C & D for the project.

Some recyclable materials include asphalt, which can be used as base material on roadways; clean construction debris, which can be used as fill, as well as to bring land up to a certain elevation before building; and concrete, which can be crushed to use for road gravel. Wood can be recycled into furniture, mulch and compost, among other products, and metals such as steel, copper and brass also can be recycled.


Success stories have contributed to the growth of recycling and reusing C & D debris. During a project completed in 1995 at Bagley Downs Apartments in Eugene, Ore., older structures were moved to a new site and used as the base for new buildings, and there was a 73 percent reduction of C & D materials. More than 112 tons of materials were recovered, and the city saved more than $1 million. During building removal, 24 tons of wood were ground into mulch; more than 2 tons of metal were recycled; 2 tons of plumbing fixtures were salvaged; and 42 tons of gypsum wallboard, vinyl flooring, wood and shingles were landfilled.

In addition, a 69 percent reduction of construction materials was reported for a project completed in 1996 at Erickson's Diversified Corp. headquarters in Hudson, Wis. Recycled materials included concrete; roof metal and roof decks; and materials such as gypsum board, insulation, plywood and steel frames were salvaged for reuse. During a project completed in 1997 at Marion County Senator Block in Salem, Ore., there was an 82 percent reduction of demolition materials, saving more than $165,000 and recycling materials such as structural steel, asphalt roofing and concrete.

In a letter to EPA, The Associated General Contractors of America noted that the limitations of these practices need to be recognized. For example, availability of recycling facilities and their proximity to job sites can affect recycling rates. In addition, there are state policies that inhibit recycling, and recycling would not be possible with hazardous debris. Finally, the rate of recycling can be affected by lack of space on a job site, as well as environmentally sensitive job sites.

However, as stated in a report from the National Demolition Association, recycling and reusing C & D debris offers a variety of additional factors that would be beneficial and improve environmental progress. These benefits include:

  • Decreasing the amount of emissions from trucks currently used to bring fill material to project sites, resulting in a decrease in greenhouse gases
  • Increasing the amount of products made from C & D materials, which decreases the amount to be buried in landfills; this would increase the longevity of landfill space
  • Using C & D materials as fill on construction sites preserves virgin materials for more appropriate uses and decreases truck emissions from transporting virgin material.
  • Decreasing transportation costs and saving money on your fuel bill when you use materials generated on-site, offsetting project costs

Some organizations that may be helpful when considering recycling or reusing C & D debris are:

Construction Materials Recycling Association
P.O. Box 644
Lisle, IL 60532
(630) 548-4510

National Association of Home Builders Research Center
400 Prince George's Blvd.
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772-8731
(301) 249-4000

Used Building Materials Association
1096 Queen St. Suite 126
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 2R9
(877) 221-UBMA (8262)

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to PVC recycling is now a reality.