Millions of tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris are generated every year. In the U.S., approximately 40% of the waste stream is C&D waste, and in Arizona, that number is around 25%.

The majority of C&D waste (90%) comes from demolition with the remainder coming from construction. And this has created a major problem around the world particularly as a linear economic system has prevailed for the past half century. But on the flip side of every problem lies opportunity.

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In this case, there is an opportunity to make the process of construction and demolition more circular by extending the life of valuable building materials. This shift, however, will require a more intentional approach to deconstructing established built environments and cycling usable materials back into the system rather than landfilling them. It will also call for the buy-in of multiple stakeholder groups: home and building owners, construction professionals, and architects and designers.

Shifting from a linear system

The built environment accounts for 40% of the global use of raw materials, according to the US Green Building Council (USGBC). This adds up to approximately 3 billion tons every year and only one-third of all C&D waste is recovered and reused.

Most of these materials, however, can be reused. They may take on another form other than their original intended purpose, but it keeps them in circulation and out of the landfill. Fixtures, furnishings and other equipment in commercial and residential spaces can also often be reused. For instance, surplus and gently used items can be donated to a local nonprofit, or crafty individuals and designers can repurpose items for resale or to create unique spaces.

While the built environment contributes tremendously to the health, well-being and safety of any community, most building materials are also major contributors to carbon emissions. From the extraction and transportation of the raw materials to processing them into a usable product to installation, maintenance and eventual demolition and disposal, each step requires energy and produces carbon.

Typically, the extraction and production phases account for the majority of a product’s total embodied carbon, but the impact can be significantly reduced the longer that product or material stays in use––so long as it meets health and safety requirements. Deconstruction offers one pathway to reducing the environmental impact of the built environment.

Rethinking traditional demolition

Demolition has long been the go-to method for renovation projects, both commercial and residential. It’s fast and effective, but not always necessarily the cheapest. There also remain misconceptions about what can be reused.

In most cases, there’s a lot of potential locked up within a building’s four walls. Typically, more than 75% of a building’s materials, furnishings and fixtures can be reused. For instance, when the Saguaro Hotel in Scottsdale was undergoing a refresh of 200 of its rooms, they donated the furnishings, fixtures and equipment to Stardust, a nonprofit that provides deconstruction services and operates reuse retail centers for gently used and surplus building materials. It saved them from having to pay someone to come haul away those items, they benefitted from a tax write-off, those items were able to have a second life at a local nonprofit, and it kept tons of waste out of the landfill. 

Aside from the environmental impact, a circular system also supports economic vitality, particularly in local economies and communities. 

Stimulating the local circular economy

It would seem that the more new products or materials are consumed and produced, the more it would contribute to economies of scale. But circular systems, in most instances, have shown to stimulate deeper economic vitality. 

The idea of a circular economy is about keeping things in use or circulation for as long as possible versus the linear economy that’s more about “make, take, waste”. Take, for example, a kitchen renovation project. The demolition route might employ a small crew for a few hours to a day, but the value of all of the potentially reusable materials is sunken in the ground once they’re landfilled.

When buildings and residences are deconstructed, however, more people are employed throughout the entire process. It also generates a number of materials and items that have the potential to generate revenue again or be gifted to a local nonprofit in need.

Following the path of a set of usable cabinets, for instance. Once extracted, those cabinets might be resold locally through a reuse retail center (which also provides local jobs). The individual who bought them then may need to hire a local professional to install them or perhaps they refurbish them and sell them at a profit. The buyer of the refurbished cabinets then may need to hire a professional to install them creating a flywheel of economic activity.

Deconstruction and reuse can:

• Offset the costs of remodeling by providing a tax deduction for the materials removed

• Conserve landfill space

• Preserve historically significant materials

• Reduce the environmental impact of producing new materials

• Provide affordable, quality materials to the community

• Reduce trash disposal costs

Recognizing the value in preserving usable materials and taking steps to keep them in circulation can benefit the local community and environment over the long term. But it will call for the active participation of homeowners, general contractors, business owners, designers, and architects.


Author: Marcus Lang is business development manager at Stardust.