business circular economy waste

The culture of waste in construction

According to the government’s waste statistics, this is where the country’s waste is generated:

  • Commercial and industry: 19%
  • Household waste: 12%
  • Construction: 61%
  • Other: 8%

The biggest factor there is construction, responsible for three fifths of all the waste in the country, dwarfing the waste of our household wheelie bins. Construction waste is at a different scale for lots of reasons, as you’d expect if you’re demolishing whole buildings, but one of them is the culture of waste in the industry.

I’ve had the opportunity to see this at work first hand recently, as we have had some work done on the front of the house. A leaky porch was replaced. We added a sloping roof to the bay window instead of the flat roof, and we added external wall insulation. It was all supposed to be done in time for the cold weather, but since when did builders ever finish anything on time?

More troubling than our builders time-keeping is the waste that has been generated. From what we have seen, and conversations about it with the various contractors who have come and gone, waste is completely routine.

For example, materials are ordered and not used. We had stocks of tiles, insulation panels and timber that were delivered on site and weren’t needed. These were not off-cuts or unused end pieces, but brand new materials. They were put in the skip, and I took them straight back out again. It is standard practice to order more materials than you need, because it factors in any breakages and prevents delays if you run out of something. But it should also be standard practice to find a new user for any leftovers.

There’s no system for taking back and reusing mistakes either. The company supplying our front door got the order slightly wrong and put the letterbox at the bottom instead of the middle, to the annoyance of the postman. When I pointed this out they immediately ordered a correct door, and it was swapped over this morning. I asked if they’d be able to sell on the old one. “Nah, it’ll be scrapped” said the contractor. I had assumed it would be sold on at a discount, since there’s nothing wrong with it. I wouldn’t have complained if I’d know they would just junk it, and the postman would have to live with it.

Then there is the issue of disposability. Our plasterers mixed up their render in buckets, and then threw the buckets away rather than wash them out. I’ve seen this with brushes and paint rollers, overalls, dust sheets and many other things, and when you think about the economics of it, this might make sense. If you’re paying an hourly rate, it could well be cheaper to buy new equipment than to clean it. But it’s not great stewardship of the earth’s resources.

Obviously I’ve been in and out of the skip on the driveway for weeks. I’ve rescued all sorts, and have topped up by supplies of scrap wood. Various local workmen who live on our street have taken away insulation panels, tiles and lengths of guttering. Since I had invited the neighbours to make use of the skip, I’ve reused lots of their junk too, including a ladder. The waste company will sort more of it, and most non-contaminated construction waste is recovered eventually. But we’ve still generated more waste from our small construction project than we have in years of careful living.

This is anecdotal of course, but it’s easy to see how construction accounts for 61% of Britain’s waste.

What can be done about it? First, design things properly, measure up and calculate material needs well to avoid over-ordering. Use local salvage networks to pick up and sell on spare materials.

Segregating waste is important too. There were some materials that couldn’t be reused because they had chunks of dried plaster all over them. It’s a bit much to ask on a small site, but larger building sites can have separate skips for different materials. This makes it much easier to sort and process.

Ultimately, the biggest challenges to reducing waste are in design. Buildings aren’t usually designed for disassembly, and have to be ‘thrown away’ when they are demolished. The really big gains will come in designing for reuse, recyclable materials, and modular construction. Then we might be getting closer to a circular economy approach in construction. Until then, don’t be ashamed to raid your local skips and reuse what you can.


  1. This reminds me of a recent Guardian article, which I found illuminating:
    I was particularly inspired by the ‘Resource Rows’ project building a very cool-looking structure out of rectangles of brickwork reclaimed from the old Carlsberg brewery.

    But also while trying to dig back to where I’d read the above, I came across this link, which seems to have all sorts of other inspiring work:

    Lots of valuable lessons to learn here, I feel!

  2. Hi Jeremy, great blog. Working in the construction industry I agree with you that there is a general problem about over ordering of materials and buildings not being designed for deconstruction. Modular buildings, prefabrication and off site construction could all provide part of the solution to reducing waste.

    It is probably worth adding that the 61% figure is for construction, demolition and excavation waste. Anecdotally the majority of this material is inert (aggregate, concrete and soils) and from demolition and excavations. The government recently reported that 91% of this waste is recovered/ recycled, which is above the EU’s target of 70% by 2020 and ahead of other sectors such as household waste (less than 50% recycled). WRAP reported the following uses for inert recycled waste in 2008: 52% recycled aggregate, 11% recycled soils, 13% spread on exempt sites, 13% beneficially used for landfill engineering/capping or used to restore former quarries, 11% deposited at landfills as waste.

    It would be fair to say that the industry has some way to go until it is in a position to reuse as well as recycle. The ‘Resource Rows’ Project is a really inspiring project from this point of view.

    1. Yes, the construction industry is bigger than builders, and demolition is always going to create a huge amount of waste. I imagine it’s a lot easier to keep the waste stream separated on bigger sites, and reuse waste as aggregate. I have further questions about the 91% recycled figure (spreading on ‘exempt sites?) that I didn’t want to get into in the post, as it’s largely about our own experience.

  3. I managed to build two tiny homes pretty easily with 90% or more left over building materials from skips and construction companies saying go for it (but only because they were community projects as most said it was company policy to not give leftovers away)… Check out the videos on the Happy-Simply tiny homes construction –

    1. Yes, and small build projects can make use of off-cuts more effectively than big projects. Interesting that it’s policy not to hand over leftovers. I wonder if that’s standard practice.

      1. Recycling centres are also strict on not allowing users to take wood etc left in the skips. Another missed opportunity for community scale ‘higher level repurposing’?

        1. Yes, I’ve found that too. I once saw a guitar missing a string in a wood skip at the tip. An easy repair and a free guitar, but the guy wouldn’t let me take it out, and five minutes later it was buried in scrap wood and wrecked entirely. Health and safety presumably – the moment it’s been dropped off, the council are liable for it. In some places there are donation points on the same site, and that should be done everywhere really.

          Having said that, I did ask for a bunch of discarded bed slats another time and the man said yes, so it’s still worth asking.

      2. I don’t think it is standard practice and it seems to be the ‘excuse’ or their own opinion so there is no chance they can get in trouble… Same with food waste where I have heard ‘it is company policy’ to not give away leftover food which is often bollocks.

  4. We bought a new house in a new development 16 years ago.
    Several times a week I would raid the dumpsters scattered around the neighborhood and collect useful stuff, mostly wood.
    Some I used in our fire pit for entertainment. Some I used to build shelves in our garage.
    So much waste.

  5. Brilliant. Yes we should all share stuff and be good neighbours to each other. Help each other out. Ridiculous waste of resources.

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