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No doubt you have heard this phrase before. The 3Rs are an order of priority for managing waste materials of any kind. Reduce is first because it requires the least resources, (except planning and design skills), and typically has the greatest return in terms of efficiency and dollars. Reuse is second because now resources have been used and waste or scrap produced. But, there are uses for the waste that don't require additional inputs of energy to convert that material to a new product. Recycling is third because energy and time is required to collect, sort and convert the waste back to a useful product. Still, recycling is often more efficient than throwing money away by paying disposal costs. The key to applying the 3Rs in the most effective and economical manner is planning.


Eliminate waste before it is created. Reduction of waste will reduce costs associated with handling, managing and disposing of waste materials, it may even reduce material costs by enhancing efficiency of the materials purchased. Reduction can save a contractor money. (Refer to the calculate potential page to determine how much you are throwing away.) Strategies for reducing waste are most effective when developed during the design and planning phases of home construction and understood by all employees and subcontractors. Three main strategies that a contractor can employ for reducing waste during the planning and construction phases are:

1. Design out waste

  • Know what you typically throw out and focus on finding alternatives
  • Base design dimensions on standard material sizes
  • Determine process modifications that reduce waste and specify them
  • Favor designs that use materials efficiently e.g. two-foot module, stacked framing and single top plate (Optimum Value Engineering)
  • Incorporate re-used and salvaged building materials into the building's design
  • Cut and fill on-site; don't haul top soil off site

2. Purchase "Green"

  • Choose engineered products that reduce rejects
  • Incorporate reclaimed materials into the project
  • Make accurate supply estimates and order only what is needed; do not overstock inventory (especially chemicals which can expire)
  • Choose products with minimal or no packaging; work with suppliers to reduce packaging
  • Use materials that do the job with the least toxicity
  • Purchase green materials, equipment and appliances throughout the project

3. Prevent on-site waste

  • Establish inventory and housekeeping procedures; train employees to follow the procedures
  • Properly label containers to avoid mixing incompatible materials
  • Ask suppliers to take or buy back any substandard, rejected, or unused items
  • Request supplies be delivered on sturdy pallets or containers that can be re-used; have supplier come and pick them up after use

King County Solid Waste Division in Cooperation with Seattle Public Utilities, Contractor's Guide To Preventing Waste and Recycling,
Sustainable Sources, Sustainable Building Sourcebook: Construction Waste,
Montana State University Extension Service, Pollution Prevention for Residential Construction,

Reuse and Recycle

Materials that cannot be eliminated through design, procurement decisions, and on-site activities can be further eliminated from the waste stream by reuse or recycling. Again, planning is essential to effective reuse and recycling. The following are strategies to begin identifying reuse and recycling opportunties:

  1. Conduct an audit of waste produced. An audit is an account of what and how much you produce. The 'Calculate Potential' section of this guide will lead you through this process along the way to estimating the costs of disposing of this waste.
  2. Check with your state and/or local environmental regulatory agencies regarding specific handling procedures and requirements regarding hazardous wastes.
  3. Develop a Waste Managment Plan. Important aspects of the planning and implementation process include:
    - Involve everyone from distributors to subcontractors to recycling facilities; familiarize yourself with opportunities, and them with on-site procedures
    - Write clear procedures, e.g. separate materials into appropriate bins or stacks; remove contamination, such as plastic or nails; day and time for pickup, etc.
    - Train employees to follow procedures
    For more information on developing a Waste Management Plan visit the King County Washington Construction Recycling Program at Designing Specifications and Waste Management Plans (2001) provides a model plan and model specifications to include in a contractor's plan.
  4. Follow-up the by reviewing procedures with all personel that visits the site and by spot checking to ensure procedures are understood and followed.

Planning and partnerships will make reuse and recycling more efficient. Below are a few considerations for reuse and recycling success:

1. Reuse / Salvage

  • Reuse waste on-site first, e.g. wood scraps for bracing, drywall scraps as fillers in closets, etc.
  • Work with local salvage centers and used material exchanges (used building supply outlets) to sell or donate lumber, fixtures, appliances, masonry, roofing, etc. Refer to the 'Waste Material Exchange' section of this guide to learn more about exchange programs. (Be sure to check salvage centers and material exchanges for products during the planning phase of your next home project).
  • Donate larger pieces of scraps or other usable materials to local housing and education programs, e.g. Habitat for Humanity, local theater groups, etc.

2. Recycle

  • Recycle waste on-site first, e.g. grind gypsum board as a soil amendment, etc.
  • Work with local recycling centers to haul cardboard, wood, gypsum board, plastic, etc. Lists of recyclers in your area can be obtained from your state or local environmental agencies. These agencies may also provide contacts for local end-use markets (manufacturers/composters/landscapers/etc.),
  • Use smaller, more mobile bins for recyclable material. Put them close to the activity that will produce the waste.
  • Put easy to read signs on bins and spot check to ensure that contamination from other waste materials is not being included in recycle bins.
  • Buy recycled products to support the markets for off-site recycling efforts.

Additional Resources:

Hazardous Waste Minimization Checklist & Assessment Manual for the Building Construction Industry, California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Toxic Substances Control, May 1993. This workbook was developed to aid the construction industry in evaluating its operations in the interest of reducing the amount of wastes generated. It will guide the contractor through an evaluation of operations and reduction options using a checklist, tables and rating system. Worksheets are also provided to assist in determining which options are the most cost effective for implementation. For a copy of the workbook, contact the Office of Pollution Prevention and Technology Department, P.O. Box 806, Sacramento, CA 95812-0806 or (916)-322-3670.

Residential Construction Waste From Disposal To Management - A factsheet for builders discussing benefits and general methods for reducing, reusing and recycling C&D waste. This factsheet is an introduction to the builder's field guide of the same name offered by the NAHB Research Center. Ordering information is provided at the end of the factsheet. National Association of Home Builders Research Center by Peter Yost, 1997.

Waste Wise Update: Building For the Future - This issue of the newsletter is devoted to construction and demolition debris reduction and resource efficient building materials along with resources for technical assistance in assessing and managing construction waste. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2002

(Fact Sheet 2 of 10)

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