What Does it Cost to Recycle Building Materials?

Almost two decades ago, in the downtown corridor of Columbus, Ohio, the century-old landmarked Lazarus Building underwent an extensive renovation to save the department store and restore it to its former glory. Sixty million dollars went into its restoration and transformation into a retail and office complex. During the construction, workers recycled nearly 5,000 pounds of steel, 2,000 pounds of concrete, and significant amounts of carpeting, ceiling tiles, and various wood- keeping 22,000 pounds of debris out of Ohio’s landfills. They also saved more than $25 million dollars by implementing this rigorous recycling process.

When we think about buildings, we emphasize what sustainable measures can be taken before they’re constructed, and while they’re operating. But what about when a building’s life comes to an end, or when a building needs a significant renovation? The construction sector is responsible for more than one-third of all energy demand across the world and is also responsible for the largest volume of waste which occurs largely when buildings are demolished. Today, only a fraction of construction waste is being reused. At the same time, our world faces increasing pressure due to our environmental crisis- always pushing us to seek ways for old materials to be sorted and reused. Architects can put a stop to the endless cycle of tearing down what was once new just to rebuild again by promoting the financial and environmental benefits of using recycled building materials. Although no designer wants to think about their building being torn down, if we begin to rethink how buildings are assembled, we can understand how they might be disassembled better. There are costs, logistics, and environmental impacts associated with the demolition, sorting, removal, transit, and processing of materials to be considered.

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Diagram of waste sorting processes. Image © NYC Gov Construction & Demolition Waste Manual

It’s important to note the difference between recycling and reclaiming building materials. Reclaiming is when a product can be used again with minimal processing or alterations, such as a residential window or kitchen cabinets. Recycled materials involve a labor-intensive process to break them down and transform them back into their original state. Largely, steel, glass, and forms of gypsum board are all highly recyclable materials. It’s estimated that more than 95% of structural steel will avoid the landfill, and 70% of rebar that is used to reinforce concrete is recycled as well. Drywall can be recycled when kept whole, meaning it needs to be carefully removed, and glass can be ground down and remade into new products.

Cost is a significant factor in how we can make recycling building materials a more efficient process, and also encourage the design and construction industry to implement it in each process. It’s widely known that recycling, although more time intensive, is less expensive than transporting everything to a landfill. Items can be sorted on-site as they are removed, or collected altogether and taken to a facility where they are separated. Contractors can save significantly on landfill fees and receive various tax credits from the government if they choose to recycle building materials.

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Reused Brick Panels for a Brewery in Copenhagen. Image via Lendager Group

In Massachusetts, it costs around $140 per ton to dispose of concrete block in a landfill. It only costs $21 per ton to recycle the same material. Factoring in the cost savings of drywall, metal, and glass, it’s possible to save thousands of dollars depending on the size of a project. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) developed a free excel model that gives a step-by-step approach to calculating the feasibility and value of deconstructing buildings, reclaiming materials, and recycling materials for potential profits.

Recycling building materials is crucial to offsetting environmental factors but also can help save overall project costs. Although the process of sorting and saving can be time-consuming, the future of how we build new buildings and renovate existing ones will heavily depend on our ability to understand how to reuse old materials.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Circular Economy. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 21, 2023

About this author
Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "What Does it Cost to Recycle Building Materials?" 28 May 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/996805/what-does-it-cost-to-recycling-building-materials> ISSN 0719-8884

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