Estimates indicate that construction and demolition (C&D) waste streams account for between 25 and 45% of all waste; however, only a fraction of this amount is recycled. Because landfill availability has an inverse relation to waste, private industries and local and state governments are looking to C&D recycling as a way to relieve landfill pressure. The urgent need to preserve this space is reflected in the criteria for LEED® certification and the self-certification requirements of the Green Guide for Health Care™ (GGHC). Both signify C&D recycling programs as a prerequisite for certification.

In addition to reducing waste, recycling C&D materials lessens the demand for natural resources. Markets abound in many areas for transforming discarded wallboard, wood, bricks and cement, ceiling systems, and even steel into new products. Economics may also factor into the decision to recycle, because diverting recyclables reduces tipping fees (the cost for waste disposal) and may qualify an organization for tax or rebate incentives.

Southwest Health Center of Platteville, Wisconsin, chose to implement a C&D recycling program for the construction of its replacement hospital and clinic. By recycling clean wood, metal, gypsum wallboard, and cardboard from the project, our firm diverted 95.48 tons of waste from the landfill. Of pivotal importance was the support of everyone involved, from Southwest Health Center President and CEO Anne Klawiter to the subcontractors who worked on the job.

“We realized early on that we needed to recycle job-site waste because it was the right thing to do in terms of our commitment to the health of our community,” says Dennis Stuckey, manager of facilities for Southwest Health Center. “We are pleased that one of the biggest rewards was the benefit to our local economies. All recycled materials went to Wisconsin-based businesses within 25 miles of the job site.”

As we found with this project, the social, environmental, and economic incentives for implementing a C&D recycling program are plentiful. But for contractors and facility owners who have never done this before, getting started may pose a challenge, because recycling also comes with associated costs. Avoiding unnecessary expenses takes preparation up front.

Time for Planning Is Crucial

“Planning is essential to creating a sound recycling program,” notes Ed Faherty, vice-president of Faherty, Inc. (a Platteville-based waste hauler) and chair of WasteCap Wisconsin. “When done right—through planning and capturing the appropriate volume—a job-site recycling program can be economical.”

Time will always be a critical factor for effective planning. The contractor needs time to research appropriate markets; to select a waste hauler and, if applicable, an on-site waste contractor; to develop a training and communications plan; and to investigate and apply for any special permits or exemptions. The contractor also may offer valuable insight into reducing waste at the source, before it even reaches the site—through design, materials selection, and purchasing considerations.

The time required to accomplish all this reinforces the absolute necessity of making the decision to recycle materials early in the project—when possible, before the design phase even begins.

The C&D Recycling Plan

The four components essential to a C&D recycling plan are: setting a goal and budget, selecting the materials to recycle, determining how to manage the recyclables, and establishing a training and communications strategy. These components are detailed below:

Set a goal and budget. Although recycling reduces tipping fees, it can also lead to substantial costs if the goals and budget are not determined up front. This requires close work between the owner and contractor. How much waste will be diverted? 25%? 50%? This goal may already be set if the owners are pursuing LEED certification or GGHC self-certification.

Building the plan into the budget will allow for thorough preparation and better cost monitoring. The budget may also determine how the recyclables ultimately will be managed, whether in-house or contracted.

Select the materials to be recycled. An incredible assortment of C&D materials can be recycled, including concrete and brick, corrugated cardboard, clean wood, metal, ceiling tiles, asphalt shingles, glass, and gypsum wallboard.

Pulverized concrete and brick provide aggregate or fill. Corrugated cardboard can become linerboard. Discarded clean wood may reappear in the market as landscaping chips. Recycled metal will decrease the demand on nonrenewable resources. Armstrong reclaims old ceiling tiles at no cost, recycling the scraps into new tiles. Asphalt shingles can be recycled into many new products, including hot-mix asphalt, pothole patch, and unpaved road coverings.

Post-consumer and post-industrial glass appears in everything from new containers to construction aggregate and landfill—even sand traps on the golf course! Gypsum wallboard, a major component of C&D waste, doubles as an excellent fertilizer and soil amendment (only untreated, or type X, wallboard can be recycled; greenboard or other treated wallboard cannot be safely applied to the soil).

A farmer with fields adjacent to the hospital's property used a portion of the pulverized gypsum to fertilize his fields (figure), and we saved the remainder to condition disturbed soil on the construction site. The hospital gained the distinction of becoming the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ first project to achieve on-site recycling of agricultural gypsum in a commercial application.

Selecting materials for recycling will depend almost entirely on the availability of area markets and on economics. Some materials are simply not economical to capture, either because markets are not close enough or because there's not enough of that item to justify the cost.

Determine the management of recyclables. This element involves investigating the selection of an on-site waste service and creating a logical flow of materials on the job site. With an on-site waste service, field staff place all recyclables into one bin and the service separates them. While this option can dramatically enhance the program's efficiency, it is not always widely available, nor is it cost-effective when the volume of recycled material is low, as on smaller construction sites.

The next step is to create a simple process for separating recyclables from nonrecyclables. It's helpful to strategically place wheeled bins throughout the facility that can then be easily pushed to larger collection containers. Clear pathways to the final collection bins should be provided and the bins marked with large, clean, and instantly understandable signs.

Pulverized gypsum from the Southwest Health Center job site is used to fertilize a neighboring farmer's fields.

Establish a training and education plan. A C&D recycling plan will fail without engaged subcontractors, but a training and communications plan that explains the whys and hows of the program will gain measurable buy-in. (Be sure also to include the program requirements in every contract, to cover the legal aspect of engagement.)

Above all, keep staff updated on the amounts of materials diverted and where those materials are going—we all like to know our efforts make a difference. Since all of the subcontractors on the Platteville job were local, they could appreciate their direct influence on conserving landfill space and benefiting local economies.

The result of good training and communications will be a smoothly run program that requires little supervision. Says Marshall Erdman & Associates Construction Superintendent Mark Erickson, “Initially, I was concerned I'd have to devote a large portion of my time to overseeing the subcontractors, but they all complied, every last one. Recycling is so much a part of our lives at home that transitioning to recycling here was natural. Keeping it easy was key to this success.”

Develop Strategic Partnerships

The future undoubtedly holds stricter C&D recycling requirements, and preparation now will result in economic, social, and environmental rewards rather than costly challenges. For first-time recyclers, the momentum ahead may seem daunting or overwhelming, but they need not begin the journey alone. Resources such as WasteCap Wisconsin ( exist in many states to assist with the process. On a national level, the Environmental Protection Agency provides information and tips for managing C&D waste.

Closing Thoughts

“Job-site recycling is starting to gain national popularity and approval from building contractors and their customers,” notes Faherty. “Learning from the experiences of others and applying this knowledge to future projects will achieve ever-greater returns in terms of environmental soundness, economics, and efficiencies.”

In addition to the advantages of C&D recycling described in this article, the public relations opportunities generated for all involved in a C&D recycling program are another benefit that shouldn't be underestimated. Such a program not only will demonstrate your organization's commitment to the overall health and well-being of the surrounding communities but also will transform your organization into an expert resource that others will seek out for assistance. HD

Frank Feit is a Senior Project Construction Manager with Marshall Erdman & Associates and can be reached at Churchill, LEED® AP, is the Manager of Sustainable Design for Marshall Erdman & Associates and can be reached at Marshall Erdman & Associates is a national planner, designer, and builder of healthcare facilities and is headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. For more information, call 800.322.5117 or visit