Guest view: A contractor’s trash can be another firm’s treasure

Glenn Ebersole//July 24, 2019

Guest view: A contractor’s trash can be another firm’s treasure

Glenn Ebersole//July 24, 2019

Commercial-building construction debris is a significant challenge. But this challenge also presents opportunities to achieve benefits when using a strategic and sustainable management approach.

The spectrum of commercial building debris includes, but is not limited to: concrete, wood, stone, drywall, metals, bricks, glass, plastics, doors, windows, electrical, plumbing and mechanical system components.

Commercial building construction generates a significant volume of solid waste in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that 548 million tons of construction and demolition debris were generated in the U.S. in 2015 and this was more than two times the volume of generated municipal solid waste. It is important that this debris be diverted from disposal and strategically managed into new productive uses.


One significant strategy to reduce debris sources is the preservation of existing buildings, instead of constructing totally new buildings. This also has the potential to preserve local architectural character and historic significance of some buildings.

Other related strategies of include optimizing the size of new buildings: designing new buildings for adaptability to prolong their useful lives; using construction methods that allow disassembly and facilitate reuse of materials; employing alternative framing techniques; reducing interior finishes; and purchasing recycled materials for construction.

Innovative and efficient design of buildings, building systems and materials can also enhance debris-reduction efforts by strategically purchasing materials to prevent excess materials and packaging from being delivered to the construction site.

Another strategy is deconstruction, which is the process of carefully dismantling buildings to salvage components for reuse and recycling. Deconstruction can be applied on various levels to salvage usable materials and significantly cut waste.

What it yields

Some benefits of deconstruction include: maximizing the recovery of materials; conservation of natural resources; employment and job training opportunities; allowing communities to create local economic activities around manufacturing or reprocessing salvaged materials; and diverting demolition debris headed for disposal.

The major benefit of reusing materials is saving the resource and energy that would have been expended for the production of new materials. Some commonly reused debris materials and applications include:

– Easy-to-remove items like doors, hardware, appliances, and fixtures. These can be salvaged for donation or used during the project construction or on other jobs.
– Wood can be used for lintels, and blocking to eliminate the need to cut full length lumber.
– Scrap wood can be chipped on site and used as mulch or groundcover.
– Brick, concrete and masonry can be recycled on-site as fill or subbase material for paved driveways and parking lots.
– Excess insulation from exterior walls can be used in interior walls as noise abatement material.
– Packaging materials can be returned to suppliers for reuse.

Many building components can be recycled where markets exist. Asphalt, concrete and rubble are often recycled into aggregate or new asphalt and concrete products. Wood can be recycled into engineered-wood products and also mulch and compost. Metals, including steel, copper and brass, are also valuable commodities to recycle.

Other significant benefits can be achieved from reducing the amount of debris disposal to landfills or incinerators. Some of these benefits include: fewer disposal facilities; reduction in environmental issues associated with disposal facilities; reduction of natural resource consumption; conservation of landfill space; reduction of transportation costs to haul debris off-site; reduction of construction costs by using recycled materials; increased business opportunities and employment at recycling facilities and reduction in life-cycle material use, energy and waste generation.

There continues to be many messages of concern about our growing volume of solid waste, even beyond what is generated by commercial building construction. One of those messages provides a great take-away for this article.

“Solid wastes are the discarded leftovers of our advanced consumer society. This growing mountain represents not only an attitude of indifference toward valuable natural resources, but also a serious economic and public health problem.” Those were the words of Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States.

Glenn Ebersole, is a professional engineer and business development manager at CVM Professional and CVMNEXT Construction in King of Prussia. He can be reached at [email protected] or 610-964-2800, ext. 155.