Each year the construction industry discards more than a billion tons of materials, including metal, glass, concrete, plastic and wood, much of which ends up in landfills. A recent report by Transparency Market Research estimates the amount of waste produced per year will more than double to more than 2.2 billion tons by 2025, according to Construction & Demolition Recycling.
But those materials don’t grow on trees. Well, except for the wood. Wasteful overproduction only serves to unnecessarily deplete finite resources. With the pace of demand for new construction accelerating every year, along with the global population, those numbers will probably only get worse if nothing changes. Fortunately, corners of the industry are turning a serious eye to the problem and devising novel ways of breathing new life into construction waste materials.
“The ongoing, sustained growth of the global population as well as dwindling resources urgently require us to do some rethinking in the construction industry“
“The ongoing, sustained growth of the global population as well as dwindling resources urgently require us to do some rethinking in the construction industry“, says Werner Sobek, Director of the Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design at the University of Stuttgart and founder of the Werner Sobek Group. “In future, we must reduce our consumption of construction materials and build for many more people.”
Demolition produces much of the waste, and although many companies diligently separate their recyclables before carting away their debris, many don’t. Part of the necessary mindset shift is away from one of “everything is discardable” to one of getting maximum utility out of existing materials, particularly when their production or disposal consumes natural resources.
Many construction materials can simply be broken down and re-used, as long as they don’t contain anything potentially hazardous that’s government-regulated like lead, PCBs or asbestos. Concrete and asphalt, which rank among the biggest contributor to construction waste, can be crushed and re-formed, either into new asphalt for paved roads or as base course for driveways or footpaths, while metals like steel, copper and aluminum are being melted down and formed into different metal products.
Some companies are even using materials sourced from outside the industry for real-world construction projects. Plastic can last for a thousand years or more in a landfill before biodegrading, and one Scottish homebuilder fed up with what he calls a “plastic waste epidemic” in the country is taking matters into his own hands.
Springfield Properties has created residential roads made of recycled plastic that are indistinguishable from standard surfaces, according to a report by BBC. The company takes plastic waste like bottles, turns them into granules, adds a proprietary ingredient to the mix and then blends it with asphalt. The resulting road not only uses fewer fossil fuels to produce, but its surface is up to 60% stronger than traditional asphalt, according to Pat Munro and MacRebur, an asphalt producing company Springfield partnered with for the project.
“We hope this pioneering project will inspire other developers in Scotland to follow Springfield’s lead as our product is available across the country as well as the UK and abroad,” MacRebur contracts manager Sarah Lakin told BBC.
Constrained resources and a growing push within the industry to reduce waste output is even changing how some companies approach demolition. Rather than the old “tear it down and get rid of it” method, greater care is being taken to preserve the reusability of the perfectly good materials. Paving stones can be reused as they are or made into aggregate to form new ones. Materials like granite or marble are highly prized, and can be easily reclaimed and reused for high-end kitchen and bathroom surfaces. Old wood is also trendy in the home decor world among people looking for a rustic accent.
Construction deals with some of the strongest and most durable materials on earth, and they all take resources to produce. Many of the materials cast aside after a demolition project have the potential for a good long life ahead of them after serving their initial purpose, and reducing the need to manufacture something new protects company’s bottom line as well as the planet.