Construction waste management was one of the sectors where O’Brien & Company entered the green building world 20 years ago today, helping jurisdictions figure out how to help builders reduce the amount of construction waste going to the landfill. For as long as there have been green building rating systems, there has been a reward for diverting a larger percentage of construction waste from the incinerator or landfill. Whether by donation for reuse or by recycling into another product, keeping waste out of the landfill has been seen as a good thing. The co-mingled and source-separated recycling industry that has resulted has developed very efficient systems for separating and tracking materials and has dramatically reduced the amount of construction waste going to the landfill as trash. A huge success, right?
Over time, however, our conscience has begun to ache as we have come to understand that most recycling is really down-cycling and, more recently, that much of what we claim is recycled actually ends up, yes, in a landfill. It may be as alternate daily cover (ADC) or Industrial Waste Stabilizer (IWS), or it may get burned as a Wood Derived Fuel (WDF), but its landing place is still often times a landfill. For waste receivers, this has meant that they need to document and report the ultimate disposition of their diverted recycling streams.
The latest wrinkle in this evolution has been a LEED for Homes’ v2008 update that requires that the estimation and documentation of diversion must relate to the specific loads coming from an individual project, not from a receiver’s monthly average diversion reports. Some receivers (such as Allied Waste and CDL) tip each load onto a sorting floor to separate recyclable material, making this an easy task. Alternately, some of the larger receivers (such as Recovery One) have sophisticated continuous flow sorting systems. Inbound loads are tipped into hoppers that feed sorting belts, making it impossible to differentiate one load from another. In pursuit of greater efficiency and lower cost of service, we have lost access to one aspect of transparency. Two projects delivering to such a facility during the same month can achieve very different proportions of recyclable vs. non-recyclable waste, yet will get the same diversion results (and so the same LEED points, by extension). Do we want efficiency or transparency?
And what of the real goal? Are we trying to reduce waste to the landfill? Or are we trying to reduce the amount of high value material we consume without generating value from it? At our roots, the prioritization of the old adage, “Reduce Reuse Recycle” rings true. Is it really sound practice to generate larger than average volumes of waste as long as we can claim it is being recycled? At O’Brien & Company, we don’t think so.
The real goal is to reduce the amount of waste that is created . . . period! Unfortunately, it has been difficult to develop fair, dependable ways to do that – after all, how do you measure what you don’t buy, use, or throw away?
LEED for Homes was one of the first rating systems to offer a metric and reward for waste reduction – offering an optional credit for reductions in waste generated per square foot of construction, below a baseline derived from NAHB’s national average statistics. For projects run by teams with good resource conservation practices and those located in areas with poor recycling infrastructure, this option has been a boon. A focus on eliminating waste from the jobsite results in less material being purchased and handled, less space taken up for staging, and less time and cost associated with removing it from the site to its ultimate destination whether it be landfill or as raw materials inbound to some manufacturing facility.
At a time when construction process efficiency has become an essential part of survival, it would seem that a shift from measuring what we throw away to measuring what we don’t buy would be a big winner. In reality, however, there are structural and systemic challenges to making the shift from waste diversion to waste avoidance. Now, with the tide running in our favor, is the time to address them.
In the next blog on this topic, we’ll be talking about real world examples of the steps builders have taken to help this transition, both within their own operations and in association with their building business partners. Look out for it!
Alistair Jackson, LEED AP, CSBA is Principal in Charge of O’Brien & Company’s Residential Technical Services, and is a LEED for Homes, Energy Star and Built Green Verifier, LEED for Homes Faculty and ARCSA certified Rainwater Harvesting designer. Alistair is a frequent contributor to the Building Capacity Blog and was also a major contributor to the Northwest Green Home Primer.
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