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Recycle building waste

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Renovating or demolishing a house to build a new one generates up to 200 tonnes of 'waste', but around 80 per cent of this material could be re-used or recycled, saving vast quantities of energy, water, resources and money.

Australians produce more than one-and-a-half tonnes of what we call waste per person per year, with 40 per cent of Australia's waste resulting from construction and demolition activities. However up to 80 per cent of this construction waste is actually made up of discarded materials that are ideal for re-use or recycling.

Recycling saves the earth's resources - the minerals, oil, petroleum, plants, animals, soil and water that are the raw materials of all the products we buy. We also reduce our consumption of water and energy, limit pollution and lessen global warming by cutting down on the extraction, harvesting, construction, transportation and distribution of new products.

Recycling does make a big difference. For example, recycling one tonne of aluminium saves 4 tonnes of bauxite and 700 kilograms of petroleum. It also prevents the associated emissions (which would include 35 kilograms of the toxic air pollutant, aluminium fluoride) from entering our air. As an added bonus, it would reduce the load on our already stretched landfill sites.

'One person's junk is another person's treasure', so skip the skip - and start recycling and re-using your building materials.

How to do it now!

Follow the waste hierarchy - Avoid, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle - in that order.

1. Avoid

Protect the products you do buy. Ensure all your materials are stored safely, away from stormwater drains. Building and construction waste often enters our waterways through stormwater drains, and is a major cause of water pollution. We've all seen those piles of sand and sediments piled on the nature strip, only to be washed away with the next rain. Ensure you don't contribute to the pollution of our waterways by keeping your building products on your site.

Wherever possible, avoid using new materials. Perhaps there’s an alternative way of designing and creating your new home that avoids the use of some materials?

2. Reduce

Think small. The trend these days is to build bigger and bigger houses, but reducing the size of your construction will see a reduction in both use of resources and generation of waste.

You can also reduce waste through these measures:

  • using standard-size products such as doors and windows.
  • using prefabricated materials for frames and roofing trusses. According to the Master Builders Association, selecting prefabricated materials produce half as much waste as on-site construction.

3. Reuse

Put a specification in your contract that the builder will supply recycled materials. The following items are usually easy to locate:

  • recycled steel reinforcements.
  • recycled or plantation timber.
  • recycled concrete.
  • second hand bricks.
  • soil and fill.

There are many fittings and fixtures (such as doors and windows) that are also available second-hand.

A list of recycled building products can also be sourced in the Yellow Pages under Building Materials - second-hand.

If you live in Sydney there's a great online initiative linking up buyers and sellers of building products called Construction Connect

The Eco-Buy Online site lists suppliers of second-hand construction and building materials and other green alternatives.

Buying recycled products increases the market for them, making it more viable for businesses to supply them.

4. Sort materials for recycling

Ask your builder (put it in the contract) to sort materials for recycling and collection. Provide clearly marked bins for separation to assist the process; or, if you prefer, create piles on your own property to sort materials out as you go. You'll be surprised by the amount of material that can be recycled. The following list details many common building products that can be recycled:

  • Steel
  • Aluminium
  • Gypsum plasterboard
  • Timber
  • Concrete
  • Sand
  • Bricks, tiles, pavers
  • Plastics
  • Glass
  • Carpet

Also consider the food and drink containers used by builders on site. After all, one recycled aluminium can saves half a can of petroleum, and 20 litres of water.

You can get further details of where the above recycled products end up here.

Some contractors will pick up the sorted recyclables for you. Check out 'Recycling and or Waste Reduction and Disposable Services' in the Yellow Pages. Always remember to ask your contractor if they recycle, and make sure they are reputable.

1300 RUBBISH collects and recycles products in many capital cities (with the exception of Hobart, Canberra, and Darwin).

You can also take the materials yourself to your local recycling centres or transfer stations. Your local council will be able to provide details of your nearest station. Your local waste facility or landfill operator might also handle some recycled products - it might be worthwhile giving them a call.

More detailed information on minimising waste on building sites can be found at Planet Ark's Recycling Near You.

Planning and design

The planning and design phases can really assist with avoiding and minimising waste on your building project. Getting experts on board will save energy (your own, and the earth's) and assist with waste reduction. Look out for green designers and builders who understand what you want and have the knowledge to carry it out.

The Master Builders Association (Victoria) website provides contact details for accredited Master Builders Green Living Builders, who have completed training courses and can demonstrate that they have incorporated sustainability into their building projects. Contact details for their accredited builders are available. 

Check out the Master Builders Website in your state and territory to find our more about Green Builders in your area.

Many local councils also have program identifying green builders.

Resource Smart (Victoria) provides building and renovation tips and advice, from the type of insulation you install right down to the positioning of your windows.

Why is this action important?

It is possible to recycle and reuse up to 80 per cent of demolition and construction materials. This would greatly alleviate the huge and growing pressure on the earth's resources, on our forests and land and our human effort. In addition, instead of carting hundreds of tonnes of material from mine-to-house-to-landfill we would simply use what is at hand, saving transport and carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change.