Worker depositing building waste in dumpster

It’s a silly question, isn’t it? How could something so massive as a building be recycled? Well, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Though we tend to think of buildings as singular entities, in reality, they are complex structures made of thousands (if not millions) of smaller parts. And, even though a building may be at the end of its life cycle, the components that make it up aren’t. Let’s take a closer look.

Reuse and Recycle

Most buildings are fantastic candidates for deconstruction — that is, the pre-demolition salvage of materials that are valuable or reusable. Rather than demolishing everything indiscriminately, contractors and homeowners can spend a little time carefully deconstructing a building and reclaiming the parts that make it up.

The reuse of building materials offers many benefits. First and foremost, it keeps perfectly useful items from ending up in the landfill. Second, it reduces the demand for new resources. Finally, it makes affordable building materials available to the community, as well as charities like Habitat for Humanity.

Building materials that are often reusable include:

  • Appliances
  • Plumbing fixtures (bathtubs, sinks, toilets)
  • Cabinets and stairs
  • Doors and windows
  • Carpet
  • Wood (hardwood flooring, weatherboards, beams, posts) 
  • Bricks, marble, and stone
  • Electrical fittings (light fixtures, switches, thermostats)
  • Finishings (skirting, wood paneling, cabinets)
  • Fiberglass, wool, and polyester insulation
  • Roof tiles

Beyond reuse, there are also many common construction materials that can be recycled and made into new products, including metals, untreated timber, vegetation, topsoil, concrete, and asphalt. Earth911’s Beginner’s Guide to Deconstruction provides some pointers to get you started.

Hazardous Wastes 

When deconstructing and demolishing buildings, workers must take special care to properly process hazardous waste. Substances such as asbestos, latex- and lead-based paint, and chemical solvents need to be kept out of the landfill and conscientiously handled in order to minimize their impact on the environment.

Building materials that may contain hazardous waste include:

  • Fluorescent fixtures that contain PCBs or mercury
  • Refrigerators or air conditioners containing freon 
  • Batteries that contain lead, mercury, and acid
  • Vinyl flooring, roof and wall claddings, textured ceilings, and pipe insulation containing asbestos
  • Any materials that contain lead, such as paint and piping

Use the Earth911 Recycling Search to find hazardous waste disposal sites near you.

The Best Course

When looking at construction and expansion, it’s important to remember that the most eco-friendly buildings are those that already exist. Refitting and refurbishing an existing structure requires fewer new materials and energy use than demolishing it and starting fresh. Furthermore, the wisest way to recycle construction waste is to incorporate it back into the new building.

As we move toward the future, what we use to build new structures may change. By looking to nature and making use of biomimicry technology, new construction can have far less of a negative impact on our environment than it has in the past.

Researchers at Arizona State University are looking at how to replicate the calcification of abalone shells to create strong, eco-friendly building materials to replace cement. Blue Planet, a Los Gatos, Calif. startup, is paving the new San Francisco International Airport runways with concrete made from recaptured atmospheric CO2.  

While our carbon and construction waste recapture systems evolve, we each must do our best by making use of what we already have. If we all make a conscious effort to reuse and recycle building materials, we can reduce the environmental impact of our homes, offices, and skyscrapers. Together, we can make a big difference in the world.

By Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup-obsessing pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.