The construction waste stream is huge. One recent estimate places it at 136 million tons per year. It’s hard to visualize 136 million tons. I went looking for an easy way to do that and wound up on web pages that must reside way out on the very edge of the Internet.

I figured that if I could express that number in a volume of something, it would really have some relevance. Of course converting tonnage to volume is pretty tricky since it depends upon the material. Wet soil will have more tonnage than dry soil for a given volume. Likewise lumber will have a different volume per ton than drywall.

I did find a list of typical construction waste materials generated during the building of a 2300 square foot home. I added up their weights and divided that number by their total volumes and came up with: 160 pounds per cubic yard. Now that I had a volume and a weight I converted the tons to pounds and divided by 160 pounds. That came out to 1.7 billion cubic yards. By The way it is estimated that 30 percent of the waste in unsecured job site dumpsters actually comes from people disposing of waste from other places – called drive-by contamination.

So how much space would it take to stow away 1.7 billion yards of material? That’s 2000 football fields filled to a height of 400 feet.

But the quantity of waste from construction is only one aspect. There is also the waste associated with discarding used things that still have a useful life. Unbroken windows, doors, countertops, cabinets – are all things that can be reused. They might even be refinished and then reused. People will change out their appliances, usually long before they stop working. Where do all these used appliances go? Many are in landfills.

By most accounts time is the biggest obstacle to green demolition, which in its simplest definition is the practice, or maybe it’s more of an art, of finding new uses for construction waste. One estimate says you should plan that deconstruction will take two to three times longer than normal demolition. That time is being found though. Over at people are taking in cabinets, bath fixtures, copper roofs, and even entire estates and then selling them throughout the country. This is just one of many small local efforts that are going to be showing the way as this issue continues to heat up.

The other factor that plagues this concept is the difficulty in finding new owners for things that are not high quality, or in high style. If you can’t sell the spoils, or get a tax break for donating them, then it’s difficult to recoup the costs of carefully salvaging them. But let’s say you decide to make the time to do a green demo. It’s probably likely that you can really cut down the time it takes by simply doing more thorough planning in how the demo is carried out. Here are some ideas.

  • Decide not to salvage any material or item unless you have a prearranged buyer, or someone to donate it to. Get their buy-in in writing to include a maximum time the materials may stay on site, and have them sign a release of liability holding you harmless for any catastrophes relating to the items once they take possession.
  • Involve the necessary utility companies, zoning and code officials and trades to make sure utility, noise, dust and other problem areas are planned for.
  • Plan for safety.
  • Have adequate dumpsters available, preferably of a locking type.
  • Put the items in a sequence of removal that is the reverse of installation.
  • Plan on allowing some temporary storage space.
  • If you, and your crews, are not going to be the ones removing the material, set up a schedule that all stakeholders must agree to, and plan on having one person on site to coordinate the efforts.
  • If you are going to do the removals set up spaces for each recipient where the materials they have agreed to take will be staged for pickup.
  • Have materials and fasteners on hand to use for closing up openings in the building’s envelope that may be left after items are removed.

This is far from an exhaustive list so if you feel inspired chime in, and leave other suggestions in the comments area.

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