Mount Soledad is constantly under construction. When driving through Via Capri or La Jolla Scenic Drive, one can’t help but notice construction sites bearing large dumpsters along the roads. At a time when La Jollans are receiving their household green trash cans to recycle organic waste, indicative of the city’s pioneering enthusiasm of environmental sustainability, questions about construction waste arise. Is construction waste really that big of a problem? And is it being sustainably processed? If so, how?
In terms of the nationwide construction industry, waste is a huge issue. A quick Google search reveals that in the United States alone, construction and demolition (C&D) waste accounts for an estimated 38% of all waste produced annually, which makes the construction industry one of the largest waste generators. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and other research, this amounted to over 600 million tons of construction waste in the US in 2022 and will exceed 2.2 billion tons by 2025.
While we know the issue goes far beyond La Jolla, the way construction waste is managed in La Jolla can help us understand the situation across the whole country.
To answer the question of sustainability in construction waste, I visited an ongoing residential construction site in La Jolla and interviewed project superintendent Chris Fischer. Fischer is from RGB, a local construction firm known for its climate-conscious actions since its founding in 2007. Fischer explained that construction waste comes from surplus or damaged materials, cut-offs, packaging, debris, scaffoldings, exporting soil and sand. His team has an onsite recycling system to classify the waste by materials such as wood, concrete, metal, plastics, carton, etc. In addition to stations with recycling bins of different colors and markings throughout the site, an RGB superintendent is assigned to oversee the waste sorting, making sure that they are going to the correct stations and being collected by an appropriate third-party who will take the materials to secondary locations. Some materials such as untreated wood, certain metals, and surplus cement are taken to recycling centers in Miramar and Riverside.
Though these measures represent an improvement over the lack of environmental awareness shown by many other construction companies, much of the waste RGB handles unfortunately still ends up in landfills without the possibility for further use or treatment due to their non-degradable nature.
“The nature of traditional construction methods generates a significant amount of waste. We try our best to reuse materials whenever there is an opportunity. We send materials to recycled plants whenever possible. However, the waste management on a site level is very limited. We lack the budget and time to do more even though we want to do more, not to mention that the average industry is even further behind us,” said Fischer.
When I asked about what he would like to see for the future of waste management outside of the construction sites, Fischer answered: “We should preplan the construction waste management before the construction starts, and we should involve all game players in the industry to develop an ecosystem.”
Here are a few suggestions that Fischer outlined.
First, waste management should be considered a priority as early as the design stage. Architects and engineers should work together to favor the usage of more sustainable and reusable materials. They should also try to include as many modular and prefabricated products as possible to eliminate cut-offs.
Second, contractors should order materials with more care and greater precision to avoid the accumulation of surplus materials, especially those which cannot be recycled or repurposed.
Third, lawmakers should launch more appealing incentive policies to motivate all game players, including the property owners, to contribute to managing construction waste.
Finally, there should be a market platform where builders as waste suppliers, end users as waste consumers, and everybody in between as service providers all come together to create a self-sustaining system for construction waste trade. “It is like an e-commerce platform specifically for construction waste,” Fischer said. “With the advanced technologies and highly-efficient logistics systems in this country, it is not something unrealistic. We need someone who shares the vision to lead the sustainable future of the industry.”
Imagine a day where construction waste goes to landfills as little as possible and in far greater amounts to end users. Whether it be an artist who is looking for a single piece of welded iron for a sculpture or a flooring plant looking for large amounts of reclaimed wood planks as raw material for their products, there can be a path for everyone. The solutions suggested by RGB show how construction waste management, far from being merely an afterthought or an environmental duty, can generate value for players across many industries.