Defeat the Debris: How to Dispose of Construction Waste

Of the many things to consider when remodeling your home, finding eco-friendly ways to manage deconstruction waste should top your list of ways to reduce your project’s environmental impact. As you contemplate the improved energy efficiency of your new appliances, purchase countertops made from recycled materials and select low-VOC paint, keep in mind one large, often-overlooked thing: What will you do with the construction debris, fixtures and appliances you remove, and the rest of the so-called trash?

Construction, demolition and remodeling typically create an enormous amount of waste. According to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency study, the waste generated during U.S. residential renovations during 1996 added up to more than 31 million tons. A major kitchen redo might generate more than 60 pounds of debris for each square foot, for a total of about 5 tons. A whole-house remodel could pile up a whopping 13 tons of waste. That’s a heap of trash headed to the landfill, along with a heap of environmental concerns.

A truly green remodel requires careful planning and management of the “leftovers.” Waste control takes more time and effort than money. To simplify it for you, we’ve outlined four steps for your next home improvement project that maximize potential reuse and recycling while minimizing the trash.

Step 1: Plan Ahead to Reduce Waste

• Before you begin, evaluate the project for ways to prevent waste.

• Design wisely. Work closely with the builder, architect or designer to maximize the use of space and existing features. Rather than adding on, is it possible to rearrange? Is there an underused room that might be adapted? Can that sink, light fixture or cabinet be reused rather than replaced?

• Reduce packaging. Request that suppliers package items in reusable materials (blankets, pallets). In some cases, the supplier may accept returned packaging for reuse.

• List and/or mark all items to be salvaged, from complete walls to outlet covers.

• Find clean, dry storage areas for items you will save for reuse. Keep items separate (fixtures in one box, wood scraps in another) to prevent damage.

• Designate boxes or locations for each type of item you plan to recycle (aluminum, steel, wallboard, copper pipe). Careful separation will make recycling easier.

• Identify all hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead or widespread mold, and call an abatement professional if needed.

• Dismantle. Instead of demolishing, carefully remove the items that can be salvaged, reused or recycled. For example, remove cabinets whole rather than tearing them apart; remove nails and fixtures from wood. This reduces waste and cleanup.

TIP: Not sure of the best way to dismantle or remove something? Consult a construction materials exchange–a company that specializes in buying and selling used construction materials–or deconstruction company. These experts may offer advice on tools or methods.

Step 2: Resuse Materials

• Reusing is far more efficient than recycling, especially if a material can still function in your own house. If you donate or sell items locally, it’s environmentally friendly; there’s no added manufacturing and far less shipping. Even if you do ship a sold or donated item to its new owner, it still is more eco-friendly than if everyone buys new.

• Reuse or repurpose on site. This is the easiest way to reuse and save yourself money.

• Salvage scraps. Don’t overlook the potential of scrap masonry for fill material, leftover bricks for landscaping, wood pieces for carpentry, or shredded packing paper as mulch. Think creatively.

• Donate. Construction-materials exchanges and thrift shops are eager for quality merchandise. Schools, clubs and retirement villages often can use materials for art projects, theater sets or shop classes. Online groups such as The Freecycle Network or CraigsList and even some newspapers allow you to advertise, at no charge, items you’re giving away.

• Sell. You can recoup some of your remodeling expenses by selling, but if your time is precious, reserve this option for big-ticket items. Hold a garage sale, buy classified ads, sell it online or pay someone to sell it online for you. If the quantity is large, consider holding an auction.

TIP: If you have a terrific item to give away but need help moving or transporting it, stick a sign in the yard that reads “Free if you move it. Ask inside.” You may have a taker sooner than you think.

Checklist: Reusable
If the following items are removed in good condition, they’re probably reusable.

• Solid wood flooring
• Trim and molding
• Lumber (especially larger dimensions and longer pieces)
• Architectural details (mantels, columns, stair rails)
• Sinks, tubs, toilets
• Faucets, showerheads
• Light fixtures, fans
• Doors
• Windows
• Cabinetry, shelving
• Hardware (knobs, pulls, hinges, closures, hooks, curtain rods, blinds)
• Roof tiles (terra-cotta or slate)
• Decorative ceramic tile (especially if mounted   on backing)
• Shower doors and stalls
• Brick and stone

Step 3: Recycle What You Can

• Once you’ve successfully dismantled, reused, donated and sold off what you can, sort through the rest and recycle as much as possible.

• Recycle at home. Add shredded paper, clean sawdust, cardboard and even small amounts of pure gypsum plaster or wallboard to landscaping or compost piles. Just be certain there are no chemicals, paint, finishes or adhesives.

• Put it in the bin. If it’s small enough to fit in the recycling bin and it meets your city’s specifications, your curbside recycler may accept items such as aluminum, plastic, glass or steel scrap.

• Drop it off. Visit your local recycling drop-off site; call ahead to see what the center takes.

• Call a salvage yard. The salvager may pick up scrap metals such as steel, copper and aluminum, and even appliances, at no charge or for a small fee.

TIP: Don’t know where to recycle it? Visit for a comprehensive list of recycling options organized by ZIP code.

Checklist: Recyclable

• Wood scraps, sawdust
• Aluminum
• Steel
• Copper
• Galvanized pipe
• Brass
• Cardboard
• Paper
• Foam and packing “peanuts”
• Plastic
• Drywall
• Glass
• Concrete
• Brick
• Stone
• Cinderblocks
• Tile
• Porcelain (such as toilets)
• Carpet (sometimes)

Rarely Recyclable

• Carpet padding
• Vinyl
• Fiberglass
• Laminate

Step 4: Dispose Correctly

Finally, when you’ve eliminated all the reusable and recyclable items and materials, you can responsibly dispose of the remainder and be proud that you’ve kept it to a minimum.

Hazardous Materials

Items containing hazardous or poisonous materials should never be reused or recycled. They require special disposal, and in some cases professional abatement. If you’re uncertain whether you’ll encounter any hazardous materials during demolition, consult your local health department for qualified inspectors and abatement contractors. Then contact your local waste management authority for specific disposal guidelines.

Asbestos: May be found in duct insulation and taping, ventilation systems, vinyl tiles, popcorn ceilings and fireproofing materials. Professional abatement is usually required by law.

Lead paint: Used on 80 percent of houses built before 1978, lead paint can be found on siding, windows, doors, cabinetry, furnishings and floors. You can carefully repaint small items, but never sand them as the lead dust is toxic. Larger items that require stripping should be handled by professionals.

Creosote: Found on nearly all landscape timbers. Never mulch or reuse, especially in play areas for children or pets. Disposal is usually with ordinary trash.

Mold: If you have widespread mold on any surface, hire a mold inspector to test it before removal. It may require professional abatement. Disposal is usually with ordinary trash.

Freon (CFCs or HCFCs): Found in many refrigerators, freezers and window air conditioners. Professional removal of refrigerants is required by law before disposal of the appliance; many salvage operations offer this service for an added fee.

Other: Heavy metals and other toxins may be found in batteries; electronics; fluorescent light bulbs; and outdated solvents, paints, finishes and adhesives. All should be treated as hazardous waste.

TIP: If you have a house full of stuff and lack the time or transportation to deal with it all, you might want to hire a removal service such as 1-800-Got-Junk? The company sorts items for reuse and salvage, recycling and disposal–a far more eco-friendly option than just sending things to the landfill.



Building Savings: Strategies for Waste Reduction of Construction and Demolition Debris from Buildings
Published by the EPA; details projects that recovered 42 percent to 82 percent of their waste.

Alameda County Waste Management Authority website
Search the “Recycling+Purchasing Wizard” by ZIP code to find area locations to recycle construction waste and buy used buildng materials

Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses
by Bob Falk and Brad Guy (Taunton, 2007)

Free listings of items to be given away
Free listings of items to be given away

Habitat ReStores

Building Materials Reuse Association
Recycling, Reuse and Hazardous Waste Disposal

Hazardous Waste Handling and Disposal:

Asbestos and Vermiculite (an insulation material often contaminated with asbestos)

Appliances with Refrigerants

Lead and Lead Paint

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368