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Construction Waste

It's Earth Day, and I'm supposed to fill your hearts with happy thoughts of planting trees.

But instead, I'd like to talk about how we can improve on an aspect of the zoological and aquarium industry that many might not consider: construction waste.


What is construction waste?

Construction and Demolition (C&D) materials consist of the debris generated during construction, renovation and/or demolition. It can include any or all of the following:

  • Concrete

  • Wood (from buildings)

  • Asphalt (from roads and roofing shingles)

  • Gypsum (the main component of drywall)

  • Metals

  • Bricks

  • Glass

  • Plastics

  • Salvaged building components (doors, windows, and plumbing fixtures)

  • Trees, stumps, earth, and rock from clearing sites

C&D materials constitute a significant waste stream in the United States. In the city of Seattle (my local metro), C&D-related materials account for approximately 31% of all waste disposed (per Seattle Public Utilities). In the United States in 2015, construction debris made up more than twice the amount of generated municipal waste.

Zoo and aquarium exhibit construction holds just a tiny fraction of commercial and residential construction waste. It's practically meaningless. I'd argue, however, that there is no better champion for environmental innovation and improvement than right in our own facilities. And it all starts with the construction project.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a great source for developing construction guidelines that reduce C&D waste. It follows the old phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle, and rebuy.


Reuse, recycle, rebuy:

Demolition is not a resource-efficient practice. It is fast, destructive, wasteful, and costs money. Unsurprisingly, demolition represents more than 90 percent of total C&D debris generation in the USA.

Using a process called deconstruction can alleviate waste. Deconstruction is the process of carefully dismantling buildings to salvage components for reuse and recycling. You can cut waste significantly by paying attention to salvageable materials:

  • Easy-to-remove items like doors, hardware, appliances, and fixtures. These can be salvaged for donation or use during the rebuild or on other jobs.

  • Wood cutoffs can be used for cripples, lintels, and blocking to eliminate the need to cut full length lumber.

  • Scrap wood can be chipped on site and used as mulch or groundcover.

  • De-papered and crushed gypsum can be used, in moderate quantities, as a soil amendment.

  • Brick, concrete and masonry can be recycled on site as fill, subbase material or driveway bedding.

  • Excess insulation from exterior walls can be used in interior walls as noise deadening material.

  • Paint can be remixed and used in garage or storage areas, or as primer coat on other jobs.

  • Packaging materials can be returned to suppliers for reuse.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is!

This practice has the potential to boost economic activities in recycling industries and increase business opportunities within the local community, especially when deconstruction and selective demolition methods are used. In fact, the EPA's 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report showed that in 2007 the recycling of C&D materials created 230,000 jobs!

There are other benefits to taking the time to deconstruct, reuse, rebuy, and recycle:

  • Reduce overall building project expenses through avoided purchase/disposal costs, and the donation of recovered materials to qualified 501(c)(3) charities, which provides a tax benefit.

  • Preserve local architectural character and historic significance (in cases of preserved or restored buildings).

  • Onsite reuse also reduces transportation costs.

  • Lead to fewer disposal facilities, potentially reducing the associated environmental issues.

  • Offset the environmental impact associated with the extraction and consumption of virgin resources and production of new materials.

  • Conserve landfill space.



Perhaps the most important aspect of developing more sustainable building practices. Reducing materials means less materials in question. Reduction measures come in many forms:

  • Preserving existing buildings rather than constructing new ones.

  • Optimizing the size of new buildings.

  • Designing new buildings for adaptability to prolong their useful lives.

  • Using construction methods that allow disassembly and facilitate reuse of materials.

  • Employing alternative framing techniques.

  • Reducing interior finishes, and more.


If you're thinking, well nobody does those things, that's labor-intensive, nit-picky, and exhausting... you're wrong. In fact, there are a number of facilities who have adapted these processes!

Both SeaWorld and Busch Gardens repurpose materials. SeaWorld Orlando's Rescue store repurposed lumber from the decommissioned Gwazi wooden roller coaster, which operated at its sister park, Busch Gardens Tampa, from 1999 to 2015.

The currently-under-construction St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station is repurposing the footprint of a century-old train shed.

At Detroit Zoo, the eatery Buddy's Pizza also embraced reducing construction waste, including a rooftop terrace built with Trex. Trex is a 95-percent recycled wood-alternative decking material, composed primarily of plastic grocery bags. Trex is one of the largest recyclers of plastic in North America, using more than 1.5 billion plastic bags each year to make composite products. A standard 16-foot Trex deck board contains recycled material from approximately 2,250 plastic bags.

Zookeepers at Lincoln Children's Zoo went dumpster diving after an exhibit expansion, and built new enrichment for the animals with repurposed construction waste.

Assiniboine Park & Zoo reserved excavated soil from the construction of the Journey to Churchill Arctic Exhibit (first photo), and stockpiles deconstructed bricks for future projects.

This isn't new information, but I hope to have inspired you to take another look at how we can balance new exhibit construction with sustainable ways to innovate with what we have.


The point here is that resource management and sustainability go hand-in-hand. Each step we take to manage the construction process, to look critically at the materials, and consider alternative options to a dumpster, is one step closer to more sustainable facilities that walk the talk of conservation.

Earth Day is every day, so let's push for innovation, consideration, and sustainability every way we can.

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