Dan Page

Recycling is not just a theory or a good idea, it’s a way of life. While it’s easy to toss your empty Dr. Pepper can into a blue bin or bundle up your newspapers and magazines, what about floor joists, doors, cabinets, sinks, and other debris from your jobs that all too often end up in the landfill?

Guess what: All those materials can be recycled, too. Virtually everything you typically discard — from roofing to dirt — can be reused in one way or another.

According to the most recent (2003) Environmental Protection Agency estimates, remodeling and renovation activities generate almost 61 million tons of waste each year. The more of that debris that can be recycled or reused, the better off the planet will be. In some cases, your own bottom line could be enhanced. Depending on the size of the remodeling job, you can actually sell or donate much of the debris you might normally toss in a Dumpster.

All Aboard

When starting a recycling program, it’s important to get employees onboard and involved. Education is vital, says Gregg Cantor, owner and CEO of Murray Lampert Construction, in San Diego. “First we educated everybody on our processes and options for jobsite recycling,” he explains. “Design representatives, project managers, and the people in the field were briefed. Everyone bought into it right away, which made developing a system and implementing it that much easier.”

Cellar Ridge Construction, in Salem, Ore., is a green builder, so recycling is of utmost importance, says project manager Carson Benner. “We are maniacal about recycling,” he says with a chuckle. “The only issue we’ve had is getting subcontractors onboard. They tend to focus on their craft, so it takes constant education, supervision, and browbeating to get them to realize how important it is to us and to our clients. We’re always managing it on the jobsite on a micro level where we’re picking up debris, recycling it, and scolding subs on being more respectful.”


Once you’ve decided what you’re going to recycle, inform your crews and put the theory into practice. Rick Hjelm, owner of Phase II, in Seattle, admits to being fortunate since he is in a location where he’s able to recycle almost everything. “By educating our employees and subs, very little actually goes to the landfill,” he says. “Small plastic containers, aluminum, tin, paper, and cardboard all go in one on-site container that is collected by a local recycling company.”

In addition, Hjelm uses a salvage company that will go to a site prior to a job and “mine” everything that can be sold at the salvage store, at no expense to Phase II. “All large metal is collected at our shop and recycled in bulk for cash. All our wood waste is hauled to a local wood waste recycling center and costs 80% less than local landfill prices,” Hjelm says. “Clean drywall is also collected by our subs and recycled. All clean concrete and masonry products are taken to a local concrete supplier for crushing and reuse. Asphalt roofing and asphalt road material is also taken to the local asphalt supplier for reuse.” Even yard debris is recycled by a local compost company.

Basically, you’ll need to figure out what can be recycled by your local town and various recycling vendors. Some remodelers separate materials on site, whether in piles, bins, or the back of different trucks. Others put all the recyclable materials in one pile and have the hauler recycle the debris off-site, for a fee.

Waste Not

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There are also methods you can use to ensure that there is as little leftover debris as possible, Benner says. “For one thing, we make sure we order lumber from a detailed cut list,” he explains. “That way there are no overages, or as little unused wood as possible. If we do have overages, we make sure they’re preserved so they can be returned.” Benner adds that recycling on new-construction jobs differs considerably from remodeling jobs. For a start, it’s more straightforward, given that there is no lead paint to contend with on drywall or other materials.

Prior to a remodel, Benner calls the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore (see “ReStore Sanity,” SM NEED LINK), which collects and resells used building products, and schedules a walk-through of the remodeling project. “We see what Habitat can use,” he says. “Whether it’s cabinets, sinks, toilets, or whatever, [Habitat] will get it out of the house and pick it up. That’s a huge segment of debris that doesn’t end up in the waste stream, and it also helps a cause we’re passionate about.”

Just like ordering lumber from a detailed cut list, Benner is also careful about other elements of a job. To reduce waste, he makes sure he only orders the materials he needs. “Once it’s on the jobsite, you own it,” he points out, “so you want to minimize that. The easiest thing is to throw it away if it’s left over at the end of a project, so we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Cost vs. Value

Here’s the bottom line on jobsite recycling: it will often cost you more than you’ll save. The savings will depend on what recycling services your locality — as well as other businesses and charities — offers. “Recycling generates very little cost savings,” Cantor says. “The cost of removal is much higher than typical demolition. We do it out of respect for the environment.”

Elliott Builders General Contracting, in Milwaukee, has been recycling for almost five years, and any real savings in material cost is lost in the labor cost incurred from the process of reclaiming the materials. “We are saving on debris removal boxes,” owner Bruce Hartley says, “but each job is different, and the client has to be onboard with your intentions. Most are happy to see the effort and support the idea of using old and new materials when possible. But, as most would agree, it’s probably more work than it’s actually worth.”

Jean Flesher Construction, in Salt Lake City, makes a little extra money when remodeling an older home with cast iron pipes. “We save on costs, but we don’t necessarily make any money off recycling,” says company owner Jean Flesher. “If we’re donating materials and they pick it up, it does save in costs of going to the dump, both in terms of time and money, so it doesn’t set us back at all.”

Hartley points out that despite the higher costs, it has been money well spent because, for his company, it has resulted in referrals and, he adds, “there’s nothing wrong with trying to help the environment.”

Deconstruction or Demolition?

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Admittedly, it’s a heck of a lot easier to just grab a sledgehammer and let your inner Hulk go smash when that wall has to come down or that pink 1970s vanity needs to be ejected. But demolition is not exactly environmentally friendly. Simply put, deconstruction is exactly what the word implies: carefully disassembling a structure — or a portion of a structure — and using the materials for another part of the construction or for another project.

“Ideally, if money isn’t an [issue], deconstruction is the best way to go,” says Gregg Cantor, owner of Murray Lampert Construction. “The deconstruction company charges a fee but takes all the materials. They donate what they can and recycle what they can. Right now most [homeowners] are not in a position to pay for deconstruction. They want to recycle, but they don’t want to spend the money to do it. In the next year or two, when things pick up, I think more people wouldn’t mind spending more to have a deeper impact [on the environment].”

ReStore Sanity

Many remodelers involved in jobsite recycling partner with Habitat for Humanityand its chain of second-hand shops, called ReStores, located throughout the country. Personnel from a local ReStore will come to your jobsite to pick up the items that can be resold. “Every ReStore wants to be engaged with more and more contractors,” says Drew Meyer, senior director of ReStores. “Contractors love this opportunity because it’s a virtual circle where everybody benefits.”

Since the ReStore picks up the material, you save on disposal and hauling fees, while your client will get a healthy tax deduction and DIYers or other contractors save on building materials that aren’t necessarily brand new. “With the challenging economy we’re having right now, there’s a shift with people deciding they don’t need something brand new but would rather have something with a little bit of life in it,” Meyer says.

If you’re interested in working with one of Habitat’s ReStores, simply go to habitat.org/restores, find the store nearest you, call the manager, and pretty soon disposal fees will be a thing of the past.

What Can Be Recycled

Once you’ve committed to a jobsite recycling program, you need to decide exactly what it is you’re going to recycle. Almost everything from a typical remodeling job can be recycled. Here’s a partial list:

  • Lumber
  • Concrete
  • Roof shingles
  • Drywall (new only)
  • Cabinets
  • Sinks, tubs, toilets, pipes, etc.
  • Windows
  • Doors
  • Lighting fixtures
  • Appliances
  • Cardboard

Deciding on what you will recycle largely depends on what part of the U.S. you live in. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you might be able to recycle everything you rip out of a home, whereas if you live in the Southeast, you could face challenges recycling anything beyond cardboard and lumber. Contact your local municipality to see what types of recycling it offers.
Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.

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