Measure twice, cut once with the USGBC-LA Construction Committee

Photo credits: Stacy Sinclair

How hard could it be to understand construction waste?  I know what waste is. I’ve been told all my life.  It’s something I no longer want or need – something that doesn’t have a use, like a weed.  But, like a weed that finds a purpose, construction and demolition materials (C&D) are one of the largest components of the solid waste stream in the US and much of it can be recycled or repurposed.  So, if it has a use or purpose, is it still considered waste?  Maybe that’s one reason this type of discussion gets complicated very quickly.

At a very basic level, the more material that we can reuse or recycle, the less actual waste there is.  Thinking metaphorically, everything we build – streets, buildings, playgrounds – it could be argued that the materials we use to build are, in fact, nature in another form.  So, once we’re done with it, why not change its form once again – and then again?  And if re are reusing it, there are benefits.  We can avoid GHG emissions and save energy, reduce negative impacts on air quality and health.  The C&D recycling industry creates jobs, contributing upwards of $17 billion to the US economy annually.  That’s not too bad, but it could be better.

How much of this ‘stuff’ are we actually talking about?  If we begin with the easy stuff – bulk aggregate (primarily concrete), reclaimed asphalt pavement, brick and clay tile, steel, wood, and gypsum drywall – the US Environmental Protection Agency has some rough estimates.  Their reports say that nearly 548 million tons of C&D are generated annually.  About 43% of that are from residential sources and 57% from nonresidential.  Almost half (48%) come from building demolition and nearly 45% from renovation.  The remaining ~8% is from other construction sources. Current data might vary, but you get the idea.

The supplemental to the 2016 CalGreen building code, which took effect last July, sets a construction waste reduction goal of at least 80% (tier 2) with at least 15% of material cost to utilize recycled content.  There are other regulations on the horizon as well.  The easy stuff isn’t going to get us to these new targets.  We’re going to need to dig deeper and think through our construction materials processes to look for more opportunity.  This is where the sub-committee is starting.

With a renewed focus on capturing potential waste and redirecting it, we not only need to think about how we demo in order to capture and segregate more material, even when our staging areas are limited, but we need to think about how we build in the first place to minimize creating waste.  When I was little, we used to make things at home.  My grandfather taught me to measure twice – cut once – whether it was making clothes or a tree house.  “Why buy something that you’re just going to throw away,” he’d say.  I’d say his advice has stood the test of time.

There will be some leftover bits and pieces and there will be the demo process, so what waste there is, needs to be properly sorted, stored and managed.  It needs to be hauled by someone who knows what they’re doing and how to handle the material.  The loads need to go to places where they are managed properly, recycled and made available upstream.  We need to know what streams there are for the waste that we generate.  If we know that drywall, for example, can be used for soil amendment processes, we can seek out avenues for production and make supplies available, supporting businesses in building capacity for upcoming demand.  We can create the demand that breeds competition.  Small and local businesses will fill these niches.

As generators of this waste, we need to work backwards.  Examine the site we are going to work with and plan what to do with the material that is there already.  If we work with our planners and architects, I’m sure we can get quite creative.  We can think strategically about the materials we will use for our new structures and select those manufactured locally and with recycled content.  We can innovate our way out of this waste dilemma.

Innovation takes the intersection of ideas and people with different perspectives.  This is what the new USGBC-LA Construction Sub-committee is doing – bringing together information and expertise from a variety of sectors across the LA region to find new pathways forward that we can all utilize.  Stay tuned for more in this series.

Want to join the conversation? Join us.

Want to learn more about reducing waste?  There’s a zero waste workshop and circular economy roundtable happening November 14th.  I hope to see you there!

Thank you to the following people for contributing ideas toward this piece:

Berwyn Salazar, GlobalASR

Richard Lundt, IRS Demo

Heather Severin, LA Metro

Please join the conversation by leaving your thoughts below.

About the Author

Stacy SinclairStacy Sinclair is an environmental scientist and author. She partners with USGBC-LA to raise awareness about the issues related to sustainability and resilience facing decision-makers.

4 comments on “Measure twice, cut once with the USGBC-LA Construction Committee

  1. Avatar
    Coral Kline on

    You do not address residential waste, and I do not know what percentage that represents compared to industrial/construction waste. In any case, I think more comparative studies from other countries such as Sweden would help.

    • Stacy Sinclair
      Stacy Sinclair on

      You raise some great points. Thank you for your comment. I invite you to add more onto the bones of this conversation. Residential waste is an important part of the picture. I hope you’ll write a piece from this viewpoint.

  2. Avatar
    Alvin on

    Hello Stacy,

    Thank you for this article. I think it is just the spark needed to advance the conversations and move beyond just conversation and on to action. Great food for thought on taking a closer look as to where opportunities may exist for us to re-purpose our C&D materials. Looking forward to the discussion and supporting the effort you and the team have initiated help us collectively make progress in this area to improve our resilience and sustainability.

    Thank you,


  3. Avatar
    Steve Pokras on

    Great article/study Stacy! Before I retired from residential building, complying with new waste mngt. regs was becoming expensive, time consuming and burdensome, in short, a big pain in the butt. When in the middle of the compliance bureaucracy it’s easy to become myopic and try to skirt the law.

    In the future, I hope there is more carrot than stick for complying with regs, Adequate waste mngt. support and education needs to be a consideration when dropping the hammer on the construction industry!

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