IF YOU'RE LIKE MOST BUILDERS in this country, there is a good chance you don't really know what's in your dumpsters. You know, for example, that they're filled with cardboard boxes, drywall scraps, plywood, bricks, blocks, 2x4s, and engineered lumber, but you don't realize what all this waste means to your bottom line. To put it another way, you don't know how much money is in your dumpsters—money that you are, in effect, throwing away.

“Most builders think they know what their waste disposal costs are, but they have no idea,” says Peter Yost, a principal at 3-D Building Solutions, a high-performance building consulting firm in Brattleboro, Vt. And what you don't know is hurting your business.

Waste generation is an inevitable part of home building, but construction debris represents an opportunity that many builders have not realized. For instance, it is estimated that a 2,000-square-foot home generates about four to seven tons of waste. Most builders pay a fee to have this waste hauled off to a municipal landfill, which is usually priced at around 70 cents per square foot of the home's size. So, for a 2,000-square-foot house, a builder will be looking at about $1,400 in waste hauling costs, which go up as the size of the house increases. Plus, if you have wasteful building practices or have inefficient subs, the cost can be higher still.

If you're lucky enough to build in a jurisdiction where waste hauling fees are low, simply disposing of this material makes financial sense, even though it is not good environmental stewardship. But is having this debris hauled away the best practice for handling waste? It is not, says Yost. The fact is, tipping fees at most landfills are only increasing and waste haulers' fuel surcharges are going up as well. So, any builder who is interested in saving money should be looking at alternative methods to dealing with construction debris.


“Ask builders to upgrade the windows they put in their houses, they will tell you that it will be prohibitively expensive and will affect the bottom line, but if you ask them about sending their waste to a dump, they'll say it's not that much money,” Yost says. “[Builders] can't play it both ways. Twenty-five dollars is twenty-five dollars,” he argues.

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE In recent times, some builders have been pursuing a more thoughtful approach to handling waste disposal and realizing that there could be a financial gain in how they process this material. One such builder is Clarum Homes in Palo Alto, Calif.

A builder with a strong commitment to the environment, Clarum Homes builds move-up single-family attached and detached zero-energy homes—meaning, the houses reduce energy consumption by 90 percent and produce more energy than they use—with standard features such as solar panels and tankless water heaters. Three years ago the company was hauling away five tons of waste for each house it builds at a cost of about 40 cents to 60 cents per square foot, says president John Suppes. This translated into $800 to $1,200 for a 2,000-square-foot house. “That's about average for the state,” he says.

Today, Clarum no longer sends its waste to a landfill—at least not all of it. The builder now recycles 85 percent to 90 percent of its debris and most of this waste is put to good use right on the jobsite, which saves money in areas with high tipping fees. Suppes says, for example, that Clarum could grind 36 yards of debris a day with a crew of one truck and the Packer 750 and the cost would be $750 in Oakley, Calif. (The Packer Suppes is referring to is the Packer 750 from Mableton, Ga.–based Packer Industries—maker of the self-contained, mobile, low-speed machine that grinds wood, drywall, block, brick, and asphalt roofing shingles into materials that can be used on site.)

A 20-yard waste hauling dumpster would cost $400 plus $50 per ton, which could add up to $550 easily per load and require two loads for a total cost of $1,050 for the same amount of debris. “Plus the site gets the added benefit of having material to reuse,” Suppes notes.

According to the EPA, 65 percent to 85 percent of construction waste consists of highly recyclable material such as concrete and mixed rubble, wood, and drywall. “Many building components can be recycled where markets exist,” the EPA's office of solid waste says in a fact sheet. “As of June 2004, more than 1,000 asphalt and concrete recycling facilities, 700 wood waste recycling facilities, and 300 mixed-waste facilities recycle demolition rubble in the U.S. Asphalt, concrete, and rubble are often recycled into aggregate or new asphalt and concrete products. Wood can be recycled into engineered-wood products such as furniture and plastic-composite decks, as well as mulch, compost, and other products.”