Dealing With Builders' Waste Sustainably

It isn’t always easy ensuring that what is titled as a ‘sustainable build project’ can be kept as sustainable as possible across the whole construction cycle. Dealing with the waste side of that has often caused builders rather more than their fair share of headaches.

Fortunately, as increasing numbers of people have found out, there is a variety of ways to help make sure that the sustainability focus is maintained, and any unwanted materials get dealt with appropriately and without too much hassle.

Minimise waste

A deliberate policy of waste minimisation can be a very useful approach for the sustainable builder to adopt – and it’s not just about ensuring that you don’t over-buy, or end up with part-used materials. Careful planning and quantity control at the outset can help you avoid creating more waste than necessary, and could also help cut up-front costs if you can make sure that you only purchase what you need – or at least, perhaps only slightly more, to allow for the inevitable mishaps along the way!

One particularly useful tip in this regard is to think about the benefits that arranging deliveries on a ‘just in time’ (widely known as JIT) basis could have in terms of avoiding the need for lengthy periods of storage, and thus reducing the chances of spoilage and material losses. Particularly for big builds, or stop-start projects, having building materials hanging around in the elements can lead to significant damage, especially if the weather turns too hot, or too cold or too wet for whatever it is that you’re storing. As well as the obvious cost implication, it can leave you having to dispose of additional waste; it’s Britain, the climate’s fickle, so think JIT whenever you can – and when you can’t, plan for weatherproof storage.

As a final ‘minimisation’ point – be aware of the packaging used for materials being delivered; is there any way you can cut down on that? It’s not always possible, but if and when it is, every bit that isn’t delivered is one less thing for you to have to concern yourself about.

Reuse on-site

Reusing unwanted or excess materials on site is arguably the most sustainable way to deal with what otherwise would be waste, although admittedly there are limits to how much of this can be done, and it obviously depends very greatly on the kind of materials themselves. For some kinds, how and where they can be used is very straightforward, but for others, sometimes the cause of sustainability needs a bit of a boost. That can often call for thinking a bit differently – and few places offer more scope to do just that than the garden, so any building project that also includes creation of a new garden, or a makeover of an existing one, could present plenty of opportunities.

  • Waste traditional building materials have obvious uses in hard landscaping applications such as walling, path or patio construction
  • The growing popularity of raised beds potentially opens up a number of ways to incorporate surplus timber within the whole design
  • You don’t need to be constrained to these more conventional approaches, and there’s nothing to stop you using old plumbing in water features or roofing materials as lawn edging if that’s the way the fancy takes you

A quick look at some of the more unusual ideas showcased each year at the Chelsea Flower Show will provide more than a little inspiration on that score!

Off-site recycling

Even if you cannot make use of things yourself, there may well be somebody else who is just crying out for the ‘waste’ that you have. The rise of awareness of sustainability and all things green has led a growing number of people to want to try to make more use of recycled materials in their own projects – but supplies are not always plentiful or conveniently located.

If you do find yourself with a glut of unwanted material, it’s always worth asking around to see if anyone else could make use of it, and in some parts of the country, there are specialist reclamation sites for building materials which may also be able to help find your ‘waste’ a new home. Online auction sites may be of use too, just be sure that your buyer is local, or willing to travel and can collect in reasonable time.

Sources of help

There is a huge amount of information to be had from the relevant authorities and organisations, too, from your local council – not least because they’re invaluable when it comes to navigating through the skip permit requirements, if you end up needing one – to the likes of the Environment Agency.


Two groups in particular which have a wide range of resources available on the topic are the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP). BRE have published their “waste arisings summaries” based on extensive research and actual data from construction projects. It is available as a download and can be used to help anyone involved in the industry formulate sustainable management approaches for building waste – see below for the links.

WRAP have developed a range of tools and guidance papers designed to improve waste management and efficiency on building sites, including their very impressive “Carbon Calculator for Construction and Demolition Waste.” This tool calculates the carbon impact resulting from building waste being treated by the different waste management options, and can be used to give builders an accurate idea of the potential carbon-savings to be made if waste is minimised, reused or recycled.

While these are obviously primarily aimed for big building projects, there’s enough of use to the smaller sustainable builder to make them well worth a look.

If dealing with the waste from your project sometimes seems an almost insurmountable hurdle, one thing’s for sure – you’re in good company. What to do with construction waste has been an issue for builders since the dawn of time; the builders of the pyramids doubtless felt just the same – but at least today, help is a little more readily on hand!

Where to find information

Here are some useful links to the resources we have mentioned in this article:

  • The Environment Agency
  • BRE – The Building Research Establishment
  • WRAP – the Waste Resources Action Programme