Across the construction industry, supply chain stakeholders are making efforts to curtail carbon emissions and adopt more energy-efficient practices. While these initiatives can help lower the amount of waste that the sector generates, there’s a concept that takes them even further: zero waste.
This is an action aimed at eliminating waste across a given activity to the greatest extent possible. In addition to recycling and recovering resources as they’re created, it also includes preventing waste before it occurs and encouraging behavioral changes to drive long-term change.
Does this concept have a future in construction? If so, what would it look like and how can we get there? Today, we’re diving into the basics of zero-waste practices and the differences they could make in this high-waste realm.
What Is Zero Waste?
Zero waste doesn’t mean that a company or industry won’t produce any waste through its operations. Rather, it means taking steps to minimize the amount of waste that is produced and then finding ways to reuse and convert those waste materials into useful resources.
A successful zero waste program manages to divert around 90% of waste from a landfill. This delivers a range of environmental benefits, including:
- Cleaner air and water
- Reduced greenhouse gases
- Less pollution
According to the EPA, construction and demolition (C&D) landfills receive a myriad of different materials, ranging from roadwork and excavated material to site clearance waste and demolition debris. In addition, these sites also contain cast-off building materials including bricks, wood, concrete, glass, plastics, and more.
This C&D waste issue can be solved effectively by redesigning the resource life cycle completely. If companies can design a way to ensure all building products are either reused or diverted, the results would be substantial.
Understanding the Zero-Waste Framework
The zero-waste framework can be broken down into seven main pathways. Let’s take a look at each one, from the most desirable to the least desirable.
This first element requires re-imagining our concept of traditional waste generation and disposal methods. It means putting policies in place that prevent waste from being created in the first place. If teams can refuse the materials that they don’t need at the onset, they won’t have to keep, store, and eventually dispose of the excess. New, redesigned business models, as well as updated packaging and materials, can support this change.
Reduce and Reuse
This element requires rethinking how construction teams manage under-utilized assets that aren’t necessarily considered waste but don’t add to the project's value. If those items are not repurposed and put back into the materials economy, they will become waste, whether they began that way or not.
When construction teams use products, they should use them as first conceived and intended. If they determine that they can’t use them, then they can look for ways to repurpose them for another use that doesn’t detract from their value. By doing so, they can minimize the quantity, toxicity, and ecological footprint of their consumption practices.
Preparation for Reuse
Building materials often become waste because they’re worn out, damaged, or unusable in some way (e.g. sawdust). Instead of simply tossing them, contractors can take the steps necessary to prepare them for future re-use.
This means checking, cleaning, and repairing products (or product components) as soon as they become waste, optimizing their chances of being reused in a different capacity without a ton of pre-processing labor and resources.
Recycling/ Composting/ Anaerobic Digestion
Recycling or reusing isn’t just about keeping demolition debris out of the landfill. It requires taking a closer look at all of the components that waste contains, even down to the smallest bits of matter.
Some waste streams currently contain high-quality materials that can be recycled, composted, or broken down into biodegradable matter through a process called anaerobic digestion. Isolating these materials is key in a zero-waste program.
Material and Chemical Recovery
In sites that contain mixed forms of waste, new technologies are available that can help companies recover usable materials and chemicals from the rubble. The same tools and systems can identify salvageable discards during the waste sorting process. These materials and discards can be repurposed into new building blocks for applications.
If there are any components that cannot be recovered from mixed waste, they can be biologically stabilized before entering the landfill to minimize their environmental impact.
There are many different methods that contractors can use to dispose of waste at work sites. However, not all of these methods meet the goals of a zero-waste program. These are methods that:
- Don’t allow for material recovery
- Have a high environmental impact
- Create lock-in effects that threaten the zero-waste transition
Examples of unacceptable methods include:
- Waste-to-energy incineration
- Plastic to fuel conversion
- Landfilling non-stabilized waste
- Illegal dumping
- Open burning
Envisioning and Implementing a Zero-Waste Future in Residential Construction
A zero-waste future can happen in the construction industry. However, it will take a collective effort from all supply chain stakeholders at every phase of the design and build process. As we begin to brainstorm what steps we need to put in place to achieve this goal, it’s important to choose suppliers and contractors who share your vision and commitment to ESG initiatives.
Our recent webinar: Strategies for Zero Waste in Residential Construction, dives into this topic in greater depth, sharing how you can begin building zero waste programming into every part of your waste streams. Sign up to view the entire webinar here.