LEED Certification and Sustainable Construction Waste Management

LEED Certification and Sustainable Construction Waste Management

The construction industry generated almost 570 million tons of waste in 2017 alone. That is more than twice as much as municipal solid waste (MSW), which is what most people would recognize as regular trash. Fortunately, the majority of construction and demolition (C&D) waste is steel, wood products, brick, cardboard and concrete, all of which can be recycled or repurposed. This is why, according to the latest EPA study, more than 75% of all C&D waste goes to “next use,” which includes everything from engineered wood products to asphalt and even turning old drywall into new drywall. 

LEED Certification
LEED Certification

Of course, while this waste diversion is significantly higher than in other sectors, it still leaves large quantities of waste going to landfill and it also requires energy to repurpose or recycle any that is diverted. That is why the EPA divides the handling of construction and demolition waste into three main steps, with the first being “Source Reduction/Reducing Materials Use.”

As with other waste, the most sustainable way to reduce it is to minimize its creation it in the first place, and within construction, this means sourcing only what the project needs, keeping track of on-site wastage, and using salvaged C&D waste where possible.

Some waste is inevitable, which is why the “Salvaging and Reusing C&D Materials” and “Recycling C&D Materials” is recommended for when it can’t be reduced at source. Salvaging and reuse can be achieved through the process of deconstruction rather than demolition which accounts for roughly 90% of all C&D waste. These salvaged materials or whole items (such as doors and windows) can then go to new projects. 

The final option is the responsible collection and recycling of C&D waste, which can be achieved through partnerships with trusted waste collection companies. This diverts as much waste as possible away from landfills to be used in new products such as aggregates.

To achieve the most sustainable construction waste management possible, any project should try to utilize all three of these options, and having the framework and direction to do so is key. This is where LEED comes in, which is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

What is LEED and How Does it Work?

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, works on a system of credits and points which are accrued throughout each step of a project. Some credits are prerequisites, which give no points and are considered the basic minimum for any project. Others award varying amounts of points depending on the requirements met, and it is these points that count towards the LEED certification — which ranges from “LEED Certified” up to “Platinum Certification”. 

The credits (both required and points-based) fall into five main categories: 

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality

The most important category for sustainable construction waste management is “Materials and Resources”, which contains a variety of credits for both the planning and construction phases of a project. 

The first credit to consider is the required Construction and Demolition Waste Management Planning for LEED BD+C New Construction. This prerequisite is specifically to “reduce construction and demolition waste disposed of in landfills and incineration facilities by recovering, reusing, and recycling materials.”

Beyond planning, there is also a two-point credit for actual “Construction and Demolition Waste Management”, which involves implementing one of several diversion paths for the waste or the reduction of the total waste as laid out in the planning stage.

There is also the “Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction” credit, which can earn projects up to five points for the reuse of building materials. This can also include the renovation of abandoned, blighted, or historic buildings, which arguably could lead to the biggest C&D waste reduction since demolition waste accounts for the largest proportion by far

Furthermore, for more sustainable sourcing, there is “Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Sourcing of Raw Materials” for a further two points. This is focussed on sustainable materials, but also includes the use of salvaged goods for construction. 

These are just a few of the LEED credits that are directly related to sustainable construction waste management, but the LEED program as a whole can help make any construction project greener and reduce overall waste through the implementation of other parts of the framework. 

Is LEED the Right Choice for Sustainable C&D Waste Management?

LEED certification is not free, with fees ranging from $900 to $5,000 depending on the size of a project and the certification goal. Moreover, it takes time, resources and staff to register, measure and submit the data required to achieve any of the LEED credits. So, it might be worth asking, is LEED certification for construction waste management really worth it? 

Beyond the positive environmental and social impacts of greener buildings, there are also the financial benefits associated with LEED certification. An estimated $54.2 million in waste savings was achieved by LEED-certified buildings between 2015 and 2018 alone. This is along with an estimated 540 million tons of waste being diverted from landfills by 2030 thanks to LEED projects. Of course, this is not all C&D waste, but considering it makes up more than twice that of MSW, it represents a significant proportion, so it’s worth considering what it might be able to do for you.

That said, it’s important to remember that LEED certification alone isn’t going to make your construction waste management more sustainable. It gives you the framework you need to get started, the next steps are up to you.