Recycling Metal: Recovering Construction and Demolition Materials

Published April 15, 2016 by Whirlwind Team

Recycling_Metal.pngWhen a building is demolished all most people see is a heap of rubble with dust rising up through the air around it. But smart contractors and owners are starting to see that recovering construction and demolition materials has more benefits than drawbacks.

Waste reduction was big in the 1970s, put on the back burner in the 1980s and 1990s, but at the turn of the new century, it became big news again. Now there is even more incentive to reduce, reuse, and recycle construction waste than ever before. There are over seven billion people on Earth and they need room and fresh air.

Today there is more demand for recycled materials than ever before, making the materials recovery business very attractive.

Construction and demolition recovery project types

Construction and demolition recovery projects come in several flavors beginning with outright destruction to complete dismantlement.

Demolition is the complete removal of a structure after the materials that are easily removed have been taken out. Then additional recyclables are recovered from the rubble after the bulldozers are done. Once removed, all materials must be separated from the contaminants to be eligible for recycling.

Deconstruction is a softer demolition technique in which workers dismantle a large portion of the structure to recover materials while they are still intact. Some materials can be reused as is, others will be sent through recycling.

Renovation involves a partial dismantling of an interior or exterior. Materials removed from a section of structure can be reused and recycled just like any other deconstruction materials.

New construction yields scrap material of various sizes. The larger scraps could be reused elsewhere. Durable packaging may be returned to the supplier for reuse. In the meantime, the smaller scraps and non-durable packaging can be recycled.

Commonly recovered materials

There isn’t much that can’t be recycled. Here is a partial list of commonly recovered materials. Note that steel is on this list and remember that steel is 100% recyclable and new steel can be made of 100% recycled steel.

  • Wood
  • Asphalt paving
  • Land clearing residuals
  • Gypsum wallboard
  • Metals
  • Concrete
  • Roofing (non-asphalt shingles)
  • Asphalt shingles
  • Brick
  • Architectural salvage

Now for the benefits.

Environmental benefits

Two of the greatest environmental benefits are conservation of landfill space and reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Landfills have grown larger over the decades. According to the Construction & Demolition Recycling Association, it has been calculated that over 4,000 acres could be saved annually through the recovery of mixed construction and demolition materials, bulk aggregate recovery, and reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP). 

Construction and demolition reclamation can also act to decrease greenhouse emissions. When materials are recycled into new materials, less energy is needed than to produce virgin materials. Recovered materials can themselves be used as a fuel source, taking the place of burning fossil fuels.

The U.S. EPA has developed a Waste Reduction Model (WARM), which includes emission factors developed for PCC, asphalt concrete, wood, drywall, asphalt shingles, brick, and steel. For every 350 million tons recycled, over 22 million metric tons of CO2 is avoided annually.

As far as energy savings, a total of 500 trillion BTUs or the equivalent of over 85 million barrels of oil can be saved. In addition, we can avoid the extraction, transportation, and processing of raw materials which can damage the environment.

Economic benefits

Construction and demolition materials reclamation and recycling have economic benefits as well.

The recycling industry requires more employees compared to landfill disposal. It’s estimated that the industry could support over 19,000 jobs at U.S. recycling facilities. A mixed construction and demolition recycling facility created 223 jobs per million tons recycled annually.

A job creation engine such as this type of facility benefits the local community through the direct financial investment of more than $4.5 billion. A direct revenue estimate for the industry could result in more than $7 billion and a greater economic contribution of over $17 billion.

Money is saved by reducing project disposal costs, transportation costs, and the cost of some new construction materials by recycling scrap and older material onsite.

In addition to all this, there is an expanding market for deconstruction materials.

  • Habitat for Humanity Re-Stores
  • Independent stores selling recycled materials
  • Companies opening a  building slated for demolition to salvage
  • Auctions and classified ad websites where people can buy, sell, donate, or advertise recyclable materials and used industrial equipment

Contractors can save a bundle on removal costs by allowing private companies to salvage materials from the jobsite.

Public relations benefits

When a company embraces material recovery, it does two things:

  • It helps the community, contractor, and building owners comply with policies such as recycling goals and bans on waste disposal.
  • It enhances the public image of the company and the organizations that reduce that disposal.

Recovery strategies

What are some ways to make construction and demolition material recovery more efficient and easier to do?

You can include plans for waste material recovery in the project design so at the end of its life cycle a structure can be easily deconstructed. Recovery requirements and goals can be added to project specifications and contracts as well as be included as a requirement in the permitting process.

A widespread educational push can be made for contractors and crews can become aware of material recovery techniques. Municipalities and states might consider providing financial incentives for materials reclamation. An inspector can follow up with the contractor and crew during the project as a reminder of this incentive and the local desire for recovering these materials. Contractors and owners can hold subcontractors accountable for materials recovery in their own trades.

Creativity can go a long way in figuring out how to recover, reuse, and recycle construction and demolition materials. Several programs have already shown significant improvements through materials recovery.

In Eugene, OR, the Bagley Downs Apartments were demolished and new apartments constructed. It created not only 30 affordable housing units, it saved the University of Oregon demolition costs and preserved a community landmark.

How did they do it? Entire buildings were moved to new locations instead of simply tearing them down. Over 73% by weight of debris was recovered in this program. More programs have stories that are just as remarkable.

Construction and demolition are both expensive businesses. If you plan to recover, reuse, and recycle as much scrap and demolition materials as possible, you could get more return on your investment through the savings outlined above.

And you would look good doing it.

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