Mulch Ado About Something

Using sustainable materials during construction is a hot concept these days. From recycling wood, glass and other items to purchasing eco-safe alternatives to the usual supplies, builders are touting the long-term savings and positive environmental effects homeowners can receive from going green.

And yet, there is less discussion about the waste created by construction — green or otherwise — and the challenges disposing of said waste can pose.

Just ask Houston (the city, not Whitney.) Facing a proposed landfill increase and the recent demolition of several historical houses, Houston has realized making room for progress can also mean making a giant mess. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle cited EPA statistics that indicate residential
demolitions sent 19.7 million tons of debris to
landfills in the United States in 1998, the most recent year for which landfill statistics are available.

Throw all demolitions except for road and bridge debris in the mix and that number spirals to 136 million tons. The result? U.S. landfills receive an average of 2.8 pounds of demolition waste
per day for every person, the Chronicle reported — numbers which are most likely higher in the Houston area.

The article also said construction of a typical new 2,000-square-foot house produces another 8,000 pounds of debris. Historical homes like the ones in Houston typically produce more because construction may disturb mature trees, creating additional waste.

But the issue is about more than garbage piles. According to the EPA, whose Landfill Methane Outreach Program seeks to find alternative energy uses for landfill-produced gas, landfills contribute signficantly toward global warming via the release of carbon dioxide and methane, which is of particular concern because it is
21 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon

Clearly, reducing construction site waste needs to be a priority. Waste reduction initiatives include:

  • The Canada Center for Mineral and Energy Technology (CANMET) Advanced Houses Program
    showed builders how to reduce waste by using recycled-content building materials and by practicing
    resource-efficient construction and demolition methods through its 1990s home building program. Homes built under this program were used as examples, sold and are now occupied by homeowners.
  • Alameda County, Calif.’s Waste Management Authority joined with the
    Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board to form the StopWaste.Org public agency. The agency is open to commercial and other partnerships and offers programs on green
    building, recycled product procurement and waste reduction. The agency has worked to develop local green building policies with member agencies and gave large- and medium-sized waste generators technical help to reduce waste.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has published a five-page guide on removing debris, available for free on its Web site, containing recycling tips.
  • PATH, a public-private partnership for advancing housing technology, has created a number of reports on  harvesting materials from buildings before demolition, construction recycling and disposing of residential construction waste.
  • And cities such as Austin, Texas; San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon, which requires projects of $50,000 and above to recycle job site waste, have initiated green building and deconstruction programs.

Garbage is an unavoidable byproduct of life — especially where construction is concerned. As the need for new residence space increases, construction sites will continue to create waste. Hopefully, as the benefits of green building become more and more known and the process itself becomes more mainstream, responsible debris removal will be part of the package.