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State of the Construction Waste Industry in the Bay Area

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Global waste will increase to 2.2 billion tons generated annually in the next five years (source). Construction and demolition waste are large components of this total. According to the EPA, construction and demolition contributes to two-thirds of total waste in the United States (source). The construction industry has a tremendous opportunity to reduce the contribution to landfills from our construction activities and optimize material waste reuse at “end of life.”

A peer group of sustainability leaders from Bay Area commercial General Contractors* have connected to share best practices on the issue of construction waste. The main focus of the collaboration includes:

  • A stronger understanding of the destination of construction and demolition waste once it leaves a jobsite

  • Communicating the capabilities and realities of local recycling markets to stakeholders

  • Construction waste reduction

Through our outreach with industry partners, waste facilities in the region, and various city representatives, we have identified several key issues and proposed opportunities to help move construction toward a zero-waste industry. This is an open invitation to the AEC community to incorporate structured programs based on the opportunities noted below.

Our Observations – the State of the Industry

Reporting Consistency

On the surface, waste diversion seems like an easy indicator to track. Upon further research on varying requirements, there are often conflicting rules that spur questions:

  • Which materials do we track?

  • Which form to report on?

  • What is the minimum diversion rate required by city and owner?

  • How do we get there?

  • And, most importantly, is the reported data valid?

One challenge we face when it comes to understanding construction waste is inconsistency in reporting. In efforts to move towards waste recycling transparency in our construction and demolition projects, The Recycling Certification Institute (RCI) is a recognized certification body that audits and ensures that a waste facility’s operations are accurately reported, third party independently verified, and have minimal negative social, economic, or environmental impacts. The participation of construction waste facilities in third party auditing processes has been limited but is on the rise.

A third-party verifier can establish a universal code what methods are acceptable for waste diversion and which streams can be tracked as diverted. Using third party-verified facilities allows teams to trust the diversion data that is provided.

Collaboration for Circularity

We can minimize the amount of overall waste. In the United States, demolition represents more than 90% of total mixed construction and demolition debris generation, while waste produced during construction represents less than 10% (EPA). A few of the strategies that the architecture and construction industry can implement are salvaging materials, specifying materials that can be recycled at the end of life, deconstruction, site planning, and identification of recycling markets prior to demolition or construction.

Our group has compiled best practices that general contractors can implement in order to reduce waste. These include:

  • Designing with the intent for disassembly, including specifying products with manufacturer take back programs

  • Site walks prior to demolition to identify salvageable material, opportunities for deconstruction and material streams for source separation and recycling, paired with local facility capabilities

BCCI encourages project teams to perform pre-demo site walks to ensure high diversion rates. In a comparison of projects that had pre-demo site walks versus projects that did not, BCCI determined that performing these walks can on average improve the project's diversion rate by 5 percent.
Turner investigated carpet recovery opportunities using the website to recycle nearly 6,000 sqft of old Oakland Airport carpet. After getting quotes for material diversion, they found that costs for carpet diversion were competitive to traditional disposal methods.
  • Inviting the waste management partner to inform the waste management plan, especially in regard to solutions involving scheduling, logistics, and best practices from other projects

For a dense development project in San Francisco, Webcor partnered with Premier recycling to develop custom waste bins with D-rings attached. These bins could easily connect to the tower crane and move the waste bins where the waste was being generated and be hoisted down to the ground for off haul.
  • Coordination with vendors to reduce the amount of packaging delivered to the job site, or take back for future ruse.

  • Accurate material procurement following better estimation practices and working with manufacturers to adjust ordering by amount needed, not adjusted with 10% buffers

  • Salvaging all surplus for donation or alternate use

During construction of the Gulf State Park Lodge in Alabama, five tons of gypsum drywall were produced weekly. Because there aren’t any gypsum drywall recycling facilities located near the site, Skanska pursued a sustainable solution for recycling the gypsum board by grinding the extra material and donating it to regional peanut farmers to use as a soil conditioner, saving 120 tons from going to landfill.

In 2017, GCI General Contractors launched Madrone, a socially responsible demolition company. Madrone creates detailed inventories of donatable items, finds matches among its established list of nonprofits, schools and entrepreneurs and coordinates delivery. Madrone's deconstruction and repurpose expertise minimizes what goes to landfill and keeps millions of dollars of assets in use.

Path to Zero Waste

As responsible consumers, we understand the importance of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and need to apply these same values to construction. While the global waste issue is multifaceted and complex, there are ways that the AEC industry can help mitigate the overall impacts of waste. Our industry has an exciting opportunity to work together to push the industry toward better waste management practices and higher diversion rates from landfills than ever before.

*About BASCL

The Bay Area Sustainable Construction Leaders (BASCL) developed a mission to utilize the collective power of Bay Area commercial general contractors to catalyze action towards net zero impact construction and inspire industry peers to commit to market transformation for a thriving and sustainable future. BASCL uses combined knowledge, resources, experience and relationships to move the Bay Area Construction industry away from unsustainable practices and to accelerate market transformation toward positive solutions.

About the Authors

Kena David, LEED AP ID+C, WELL AP, and WELL Faculty has over 8 years experience in sustainability and green building, leading the Sustainability Department at BCCI. Her expertise in environmental science and chemistry as well as her involvement as a WELL Faculty provides BCCI and clients a unique lense on sustainability and health and wellness in the built environment. Kena has completed dozens of sustainable projects under the LEED Rating System, including the world’s first LEED v4 for Commercial Interiors Platinum Certified project. Additionally, she has successfully managed over half a dozen WELL projects including the first WELLv1 Silver Certified Interior in San Francisco, the first WELL Ground Up in Northern California, and the first WELL Certified project in Texas. Kena also provides educational training on the successful implementation of sustainability frameworks for various stakeholders. Kena has also been recognized for her leadership in being awarded with the 2017 ELEVATE Rising Rock Star Award through CREW and The Registry and the Northern California Women of Real Estate Rising Star Award.

Kimberly Loscher is a leading sustainability professional with over six years of experience supporting corporate sustainability programs. Her areas of expertise include sustainable construction practices, international sustainability frameworks, and climate impact disclosure. Most recently, she held the position of Sustainability Director at Skanska where she oversaw the strategy and data collection for key metrics such as waste and carbon emissions for US operations. She holds a Master of Science Degree from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree from University of Miami. Kimberly currently volunteers with USGBC as a member of the Materials and Resources TAG and holds LEED AP BD+C and WELL AP credentials.

Natalie Wheating, LEED AP BD+C, ID+C, WELL AP, carries over five years of experience driving sustainability initiatives in the construction industry. As Assistant Sustainability Manager at Webcor Builders, Natalie supports the company on all matters related to sustainable design and construction as well as facilitating Webcor’s internal corporate social responsibility. Her responsibilities include providing green building services to Webcor’s clients and AEC community, sustainability-related preconstruction services, implementing LEED training programs, and continuous improvement of sustainability best practices. Natalie is well versed in embodied carbon footprint reporting of construction materials and mobilizing Green Teams to execute corporate initiatives aimed at increasing employee engagement and community involvement. Natalie holds a M.S. of Environmental Management from the University of San Francisco, and a B.A. Degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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