From both an economic and environmental perspective, reducing and recycling construction waste materials makes perfect sense for members of the building profession.

While building and infrastructure projects serve as society’s most physically impressive monuments to human ambition and ingenuity, they all too frequently involve the creation of prodigious amounts of wasted material.

The squandering of these materials has an adverse effect upon both the bottom line of building companies, as well as the health of the broader environment.

The negative impact on the environment is especially pronounced given that building and infrastructure projects are undoubtedly society’s largest and most widespread physical undertakings, generating potentially copious amounts of waste.

According to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), buildings account for a staggering proportion of humanity’s resource consumption and environmental pollution.

The OECD estimates that they are responsible for around 30 per cent of raw materials used globally, 42 per cent of energy consumption, 25 per cent of water used, 40 per cent of atmospheric emissions, 20 per cent of water effluents and 25 per cent of solid waste.

This environmental impact is further exacerbated by the fact that building products leave an environmental footprint at every segment of their life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials and their processing into completed goods, to their transportation to project sites and use in actual construction, to their final removal and disposal once a building’s operating life comes to an end.

Acutely aware of the negative environmental effects associated with building materials, governments around the world are adopting regulations and measures to help diminish their wastage and encourage recycling.

These include a policy launched by the Western Australian government in the middle of 2014 to send the landfill levy skyrocketing, raising the cost of disposing the type of inert waste produced by the construction industry a staggering 400 per cent, from $8 per ton to $40. The decision to increase the levy triggered widespread ire amongst members of the state’s building industry.

The landfill levy varies by state within Australia, and in many places can impose an onerous economic burden upon construction businesses for their dumping practices. It currently stands at $52 per ton of solid waste in South Australia, around $58 per ton for both municipal and industrial waste in metropolitan and provincial parts of Victoria, and a hefty $120.90 per ton in metropolitan parts of NSW.

Queensland remains a major exception in Australia when it comes to landfill levies, having rescinded its $35 per ton landfill levy – a decision which has resulted in a 20 per cent increase in recycling.

Thankfully for both members of the construction sector and the environmentally minded, a broad array of methods already exist for both reducing the wastage and recycling any excess or unused building materials.

During the pre-construction phase, architects can incorporate features into the design of projects in order to greatly facilitate waste reduction.

These include sound dimensioning and designs that meet standard material sizes, as well as designing with an eye on eventual deconstruction, so that buildings can be easily dismantled and their components readily reused in the case of alteration or decommissioning in future.

During the estimating and procurement phase, construction managers can employ precise and careful planning to avoid over-estimates or the purchase of a needless surfeit of materials.

Once the stage of on-site construction is reached, key measures to prevent wastage include arranging for suppliers to deliver materials when they’re required, and sound storage measures to safeguard building materials from suffering incurring as a result of local climate conditions.

Recycling can be facilitated by the separation of disposed materials by means of clearly marked bins, and fully apprising all sub-contractors and workers of the separation and collection process.

In addition to helping the environment, recycling can bring significant economic benefit to building economies given the high cost of materials and the sheer plethora of material types are amenable to re-usage  in various forms, including concrete, rock, metals, timber and plastic.

The measures outlined above are all easy and practical to implement, and do not involve the adoption of innovative or complex building techniques.

At the cutting edge of development in the building sector, however, are new methods and technologies that can also help greatly reduce materials wastage.

Chief amongst them is Building Information Modeling (BIM) – the software-based design and management paradigm that is sweeping the building and construction industries of many parts of the globe.

The use of BIM can enhance project management by providing accessible, data-embedded simulations of real-life construction sites that can be shared between stakeholders.

This in turn enables them to raise efficiencies and slash wastage via improved planning and heightened coordination between parties.

Prefabricated construction is another innovative building technology which can help to dramatically reduce wastage on building sites.

The transfer of construction activities from building sites themselves to off-site production facilities is considered one of the most effective waste minimization methods in the construction context.

The construction of modules in a factory greatly cuts down on the excessive procurement of materials, given that the amounts required for each prefabricated building unit can be precisely calculated long before they’re installed on site.

Off-site construction also dispenses with many of the difficulties involved in working on a building site which is exposed to the elements, where further wastage of materials can occur due to weather damage.

  • Projects that incorporate modular bathroom pods enjoy dramatically reduced waste. As bathrooms come complete, ready for installation, there is none of the normal waste generated from a dozen or so bathroom trades.

    • A sensible analysis of what is involved in building a bathroom simply doesn't support this claim. A small box of tile off-cuts, a small tin of wet-seal residue, an empty paint tin (maybe) some Gyprok off-cuts (no more than in any other drywall-sheeted room) and the general detritis of plumbers and electricians will not add up to the proverbial "hill-a-beans". The joinery and glazing is produced off-site and the bathroom fitting waste is restricted to a few cardboard cartons. In my own experience of prefabricated bathrooms, the transport packaging and dunnage they need (and that also has to be disposed of) exceeds in volume any of the cardboard boxes that might come off a toilet pan etc. ….and then, as another poster has pointed out, there's the rubbish back at the prefab factory!

  • Marc you touch the edge of an iceberg topic in construction. My observation of projects where BIM has been acclaimed as a game changer show no real benefit on-site. BIM may make co-ordination between design disciplines easier but it does not produce a single point accountability for the suitability of the combined design effort for construction. While there may be the odd reduction in wasted materials, man hours and on-site time for some BIM derived projects this is not the norm.
    Waste is an interesting subject on its own. Most public land and waste management facilities have been privatised over the last 20 years. I have heard of no privatised waste collection organisation beating the waste reduction drum. Why would they? It would reduce volumes and profits. Its a conflicted model.
    Sourceable published an article last year that reported that on average 17m3 of rubbish was generated by one home builder for every house built. If the cost of the rubbish, the cost on site working of the materials, the cost of handling and waste fees were $500/m3 then the waste burden per dwelling would exceed $8500. Tell that to struggling home buyers.

  • I agree with David, BIM has no real effect on wastage on site. The major culprits are a combination of building dimensions not being consistent with material sizes, rework due to mistakes, rework due to damages and tolerances. I was on a project that trialled recycling on site into nominated bins which failed due to subcontractors ignoring the signs and just putting ittheir rubbish into any bin. Also, all of the skip bin companies sort and recycle the rubbish these days so recycling on site is not needed. It was also not practical due to space constraints on most commercail projects.
    Off site prefab construction of bathrooms has been trialled by several builders to my knowledge, but I believe none have achieved success in their business case. It is still cheaper to build onsite and you avoid all of the coordination of services issues.
    Sorry Eliza, there is still the same amount of waste, its just at the manufacturers factory!

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