How Does Construction Impact the Environment?

21 June 2017

Here at GoContractor, our focus is on helping companies move their construction safety training and onboarding online. With that said, we’re always looking at ways to make construction better, and in this article, we explore the environmental impact of construction, and what the industry can do to improve their environmental footprint.

With the construction sector experiencing a resurgence in growth, it’s bound to have a detrimental impact on the environment. According to the U.K. Green Building Council, the construction sector uses more than 400 million tons of material a year, many of which has an adverse impact on the environment. Additional research by Construction Products says that the products used during a particular construction job can also have an impact on the surrounding environment, due to the “extraction of raw materials”. Similarly, in the U.S., a number of tools and resources regularly used by contract workers and construction firms, such as chemicals on site and even the Diesel used by diggers and trucks, can significantly “harm public health and the environment,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Furthermore, the U.S. construction industry accounts for 160 million tons, or 25 percent, of non-industrial waste generation a year, according to the agency. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the impact in more detail, and investigate the possible solutions.

The Stats

According to new research by construction blog Bimhow, the construction sector contributes to 23% of air pollution, 50% of the climatic change, 40% of drinking water pollution, and 50% of landfill wastes. In separate research by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the construction industry accounts for 40% of worldwide energy usage, with estimations that by 2030 emissions from commercial buildings will grow by 1.8%.

Furthermore, according to the EPA, construction activity can “significantly change the surface of a land” due in large part to “clearing of vegetation and excavating” which is common on many construction projects. According to the agency, the result means surrounding environments can be heavily polluted, particularly surrounding water pools, which have experienced an increase in pollution as a result of various construction projects in recent years. Additionally, research by Kleiwerks says that building material, such as concrete, aluminum, and steel, are directly responsible for “large quantities of CO2 emissions” due to high contents of “embodied energy content”, with 9.8 million tons of CO2 generated from the production of “76 million tons of finished concrete in the US.” The research also says that the construction sector’s current practices at reducing pollutants, or omissions, are massively ineffective and may even “generate high levels of greenhouse gas pollution.” Worryingly enough, construction activities consume “half of all the resources” extracted from nature, and account for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, one-quarter of wood consumption, and one-quarter of global waste,” according to the research.

In the U.K., these numbers have not gone unnoticed, with the publication of the Green Guide, the work of Oxford Brookes and the UK construction industry, that lays out how construction firms can use materials in order to help the environment. Following the publication of the guide, 230,000 construction projects have improved their environmental standing, with over a million construction firms awaiting certification worldwide, according to the agency. In the U.S., the EPA oversees the protection of the environment and have a number of rules and regulations in place to ensure the construction industry can reduce its negative impact on the climate.

How Construction Can Protect the Environment

The EPA’s rules are clear, they say that the protection of the environment should come first at the outset of any construction project. This means you have a duty to inform all of your contract workers that these rules should be followed and that your firm takes the protection of the environment seriously. These rules, or snapshots of which, can be incorporated into your contractor orientation process. Take a read at the Code of Regulations, many of which can be quite intricate but helpful, and ensure you adapt them into your daily talks, meetings, and overall training processes.

  • Erosion and Sediment Controls – According to the regulations, construction firms should “design, install and maintain” erosion controls to “minimize the discharge of pollutants.” These controls should include mechanisms to curtail storm water controls and by minimizing the “amount of soil exposed during construction activity.”
  • Soil Stabilization – This is an important component of the construction process and it must be “initiated immediately” whenever you are carrying out excavating work on a site. The rules indicate that the stabilization process must be “completed” within a time period applicable to local construction rules and regulations. However, the process may not be required depending on the structure of your construction project.

Pollution Prevention Measures

There are many chemicals used during the construction process, many of which can be quite harmful to both your contract workers and the surrounding environment if not handled correctly. Therefore, the EPA recommend that you design “install, implement and maintain effective pollution prevention measures” during the course of a project, to ensure pollutants are discharged correctly and safely with limited impact on the environment. The rules maintain that you must ensure you minimize the “discharge of pollutants” from any equipment you use on site, this includes site vehicles, wheel wash water, and associated chemicals. The rules also say that you should limit the “exposure of building materials, products, construction wastes” and any other related materials to both “precipitation and to storm water”. The EPA rules stipulate, however, that this requirement is unnecessary in cases where there isn’t a risk of pollutants infecting surrounding waters or the atmosphere surrounding your construction site.

Prohibited Discharges

According to the EPA rules, there are certain discharges that are prohibited, this is primarily to protect both your contract workers and the surrounding environment. They include the following rules.

  • Wastewater from washout of concrete, unless “managed by an appropriate control”
  • Wastewater discharges as a result of painting, release of oils, curing compounds and “other construction materials”
  • The discharge of fuels, oils and “other pollutants used in vehicle and equipment operation and maintenance”

Many of these rules will certainly help to limit your impact on the environment. However, in recent years many construction firms are opting to incorporate green building into their design and building process.

The Importance of Building Green

The process uses environmentally friendly materials during the construction process that can save 250 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, according to environmental group LEED. Furthermore, according to a new report by Dodge Data and Analytics, green building continues to double every three years, with 60% of construction projects expected to be green by 2018 and roughly 70% of the survey’s respondents citing lower operating costs as the “greatest benefit” of building green. The research also says that increasingly construction firms are being asked to build projects that are both sustainable and energy efficient. This pivot towards green building projects has led the EPA to instigate a significant research into this area, by collaborating with the National Institute of Building Sciences in the creation of a Green Building Construction Guide, which details how construction firms can approach green building while incorporating the various federal rules and regulations. They have also produced a number of initiatives aimed at improving construction’s impact on the environment, as detailed below.

    • Energy Star Program – For instance, the EPA and the Department of Energy have teamed up to create the Energy Star program, which promotes the use of energy-efficient materials in buildings across the US, according to the EPA’s website.
    • Industrial Recycling Program – The agency also has initiatives aimed specifically at the construction industry such as the EPA’s Industrial Recycling Program, which provides information on how construction and demolition debris can be recycled to help the construction sector’s environmental impact. As part of this program, industrial materials “can be recycled in construction applications” used on site by contract workers and may even “improve the quality of a product.”
    • EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program – This program allows construction companies to help improve the environment by requiring your firm to buy products that are going to help the environment.
  • EPA’s GreenScapes Program – This program offers “cost efficient” and “environmentally friendly solutions” for large-scale construction projects that involve landscaping. The main aim of this program is to stifle waste and pollution and help protect natural resource during the building process.
New call-to-action

Sonya Sikra

Sonya is the Brand Strategy Manager at GoContractor. She specializes in communicating how implementing tech in construction can drive productivity and profit.

Show me more!

Take a look at how GOCONTRACTOR can save you thousands of hours