When it comes to managing waste, keeping track for just one household can be challenging. Depending on where you live, there are various rules about what type of product goes where; even for conscious consumers, it can get tricky. What about when the waste consists of giant blocks of concrete, or endless square feet of wood flooring? This is the case in the construction industry, where the materials used – and disposed of – have an outsized impact on our environment. 

Urban development has long been part of the conversation on climate change. As cities expand and populations grow, more infrastructure – from roads and street lamps to houses and office buildings – is needed. With the cost of housing rapidly increasing worldwide, the need for new residential units is also more in demand than ever. While it’s important for cities to respond to these needs, it comes at a steep cost to the planet.  

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that in 2018, construction and demolition activities caused about 600 million tonnes of waste – more than twice the amount of solid waste generated in municipalities. More than 90% of that waste was generated through demolition activities (like tearing down an old building), and the remainder through new construction. In Canada, this waste is classified as construction, renovation and demolition (CRD), and accounts for 12% (about four million tonnes) of the solid waste stream generated in the entire country. Overseas, the European Commission on the Environment stated that construction and demolition accounted for more than a third of all waste across the European Union. 

Why is the construction industry such a big driver of waste? There are a few key reasons, the first being that the activities accompanying construction tend to be detrimental to the environment, like the high carbon emissions from mixing cement, or the worsening of deforestation from demand for wood. In many cities, the trend leans towards demolishing older, smaller houses or buildings in favour of large high-rises, which require a significant amount of material. Furthermore, it can be logistically difficult to reuse or recycle materials left over from demolition. Most construction projects involve multiple stakeholders, from large companies and smaller contractors, to municipal and federal governments. Each player may have varying priorities for sustainability, or different capacities for waste management.  

The good news is, the industry is full of skilled innovators who are recognizing not only the impact of construction waste, but the great potential in making their work more circular. In the U.S., the EPA actually found that more than half of current construction waste is sent to ‘next use’ – and there’s room for more. In fact, earlier this year, a major construction company in New York City was able to reuse or recycle 96% of their materials, by having employees closely track and adjust the current waste streams.  

Though it’s clear that eliminating waste altogether in the construction industry is possible, one of the more abstract challenges – as in other climate change problems –  is shifting our thinking. A recent BBC article highlighted a project at Brighton University, where a ‘waste house’, built almost entirely out of reused materials, was put on display, encouraging people to consider the importance of eco-friendly design and construction. From small households to hundred-storey buildings, reducing construction waste means reimagining the life cycle of our built environments.