blurred photo of a construction site with environmental icons overlaid

Overcoming the barriers to climate-friendly waste management in construction

Overcoming the barriers to climate-friendly waste management in construction

Synopsis
6 Minute Read

Because construction is resource-intensive, the industry is under a higher level of scrutiny than many industries when it comes to environmental issues. Your approach to waste management — including emissions, water, utilities, and construction and packaging materials — can become a strategic advantage.

Three significant barriers to evolving environmentally conscious waste management practices are culture change, controlling costs, and operational complexity. But each can be overcome — if your leaders become effective ambassadors for a clear waste management program, invest in training and educating all levels of staff, and maintain transparency on your company’s climate objectives, your chances of success increase.

All businesses operating in Canada should be prepared for changing regulations and standards when it comes to protecting the environment. It’s likely that in the coming years, your organization will experience more scrutiny on key metrics such as emissions, energy consumption, and all forms of waste production — that scrutiny could come from regulators, employees, investors, or other companies you do business with.

As a business owner, executive, or leader in the construction industry, you know that your industry is under more pressure than most to operate in an environmentally conscious way. Waste management can be and ought to be a central part of your long-term strategy to run a profitable business.

But reducing waste, in all its forms, and responsibly managing the waste you create is often easier said than done. In our conversations with clients in this industry, we’ve observed the three biggest challenges standing between them and effective and environmentally conscious waste management are culture, costs, and operational complexity.

Culture

When construction and homebuilding companies attempt to re-design their waste management practices and policies, securing buy-in from owners, CEOs, and managers is often the easy part — odds are the idea originated from someone in leadership. What’s far more challenging is getting the people who spend every day on job sites, many of whom are busy and accustomed to their own way of doing things, to buy in.

You should think about a shift in your waste management processes in a similar light as any other enterprise-wide transformation effort. Have you ever changed your safety protocols, or adopted a new technology that all team members needed to use? What went well during that process, and what didn’t? You can take those learnings an apply them to your new waste management initiative. 

Your ability to adapt your organization’s approach to fit your culture will play a significant role in determining whether these change management efforts go smoothly or not. 

While you can’t expect all levels of staff to have the same motivations, and the same commitment to ESG, as you have, you can set a vision and inspire your team to join forces.

What to do about it

Education and awareness are a good place to start. Even if not everyone agrees with your proposed waste reduction policies or best practices, explaining thoroughly what they are and why environmentally conscious waste management is important will get more people on board.

When you formalize your program and put it into writing, that document becomes your corporation’s statement and stance; it creates an anchor for your team members and will help drive success. Keeping in mind the culture of your workplace, clearly include the following elements in your written plan:

  • Your company’s expectations for performance and behaviour changes
  • The metrics you will use to measure the success of individuals and your business as a whole
  • Incentives for individuals who embody your vision of environmentally conscious waste management
  • Designs and instructions for new internal processes, such as negotiating contracts and best practices for on-site work

If your organizational culture is resistant to change, don’t hesitate to implement your strategy a little at a time.

When you combine a clear written plan with regular follow up and a continuous improvement mindset, you can sustain new processes until they become routine.

Consider this example: In some cases, waste on the construction site may come from new hires who are not properly trained how to handle materials. Your more experienced employees may be inclined to simply do the job themselves. Do you have a culture that rewards training and education, so that less waste happens in the long term? Would you encourage it, even if a job takes slightly longer to get done?

Your ability to share your long-term vision, hire employees that want to work for a company that takes this seriously, and reward the right behaviours will help determine the success of your environmentally conscious waste management program. You can’t rely on your initial burst of enthusiasm for sustained success, because enthusiasm almost always wanes with time.

Costs

It would be ideal if reducing waste and disposing of it in an environmentally friendly manner was directly correlated with reducing costs, but that’s not always the case.

Yes, there are opportunities for you to reduce costs and waste simultaneously — supply chain bottlenecks and inflation have caused your materials and utilities costs to go up, so naturally you will incur some savings by using less and being efficient with what you have, whenever you can. And of course, you should always be keeping an eye out for these types of wins.

But the unfortunate reality is that most of your initiatives to control waste and dispose of it properly will cost money, at least in the early stages. The tools to monitor your materials and energy consumption cost money. Recycling rather than throwing something in a landfill costs money. Re-training your staff and undergoing a culture shift has its costs as well.

What to do about it

Something you can do in the near term to make waste management less costly is to consider making sensible investments in technology. There are digital tools, including wearables, that can track movement on the job site, and spot inefficient processes and practices, which can lead to cost efficiencies.

However, the more universal strategy for coping with increased costs is to develop a long-term perspective, and instill it in the rest of your team as much as possible.

Consider the fact that an environmentally conscious waste management program, when combined with communication and transparency, can yield the following advantages:

  • Lower risk of regulatory fines and litigation when the climate disclosure environment gets more strict
  • Reduced risk of reputational damage
  • Higher investor satisfaction and more confidence from lenders
  • Increased employee engagement and retention, as well as better ability to hire
  • Better relationships with customers and business partners
  • Better outcomes for the environment and the planet

All of these outcomes are positive for the long-term health of the business (and the environment), even if they don’t immediately show up on your balance sheet when you kick off your waste reduction initiatives.

Complexity

Keep in mind that there are two big components of waste management: upstream and downstream.

On the upstream side, you need to be looking at contracts, procurement, suppliers, and relationships, to mitigate the amount of waste from outside your organization you become accountable for (e.g., Scope 2 and Scope 3 emissions). On the downstream side, you need to be monitoring your construction sites — how much material is being thrown away, whether it’s contaminated, and whether it’s actually being disposed of in the way you agreed to with vendors.

With operations as complex as this, it’s easy to become discouraged thinking about how many elements of waste management are outside of your control.

What to do about it

While you don’t have the bandwidth to oversee everything at once, as you build out your systems for tracking and reporting data, you will gradually create a picture of what works and what doesn’t. Armed with that knowledge, you can train your team members to replicate the practices that work.

When it comes to your suppliers and other business partnerships, there are technology tools that exist, many of them developed within the past few years, that can help you calculate your carbon footprint and amounts of waste, even going up to Scope 3 emissions. Having this data can lead you to rethink your business relationships, and where you can, form more productive ones.

It may fall on you, as the leader and ambassador of this waste management effort, to start open and honest conversations with suppliers and business partners about your environmental goals. Seek out businesses that will collaborate with you, and look for areas where you can help each other create less waste and dispose of it in a more climate-friendly way. Look for those who are willing to act as your accountability partner, and allow you to do the same for them.

When you have a hundred facets of your organization to monitor, you need strength in numbers.

As you and your organizational leaders set the example, you will attract employees and business partners who share your vision, and as a result will need less oversight.

Finding your why

There are many sources of motivation you can use to spur your environmentally conscious waste management efforts — mitigating risk, staying compliant, gaining a competitive advantage, or simply wanting to leave behind a better world for future generations. Wherever your desire for change comes from, your ambitions should be accompanied by careful design planning, building the infrastructure that will enable successful implementation, and thoughtful change management that inspires and drives a new way of doing things.

The skilled team at MNP can help you assess where your greatest needs lie, and lay out a plan that will lead to effective and sustainable waste reduction practices. Our expertise includes organizational culture and training, technology integration, cost/benefit analysis, and more.

Contact us

Nicole Asselin, MBA, CMC
Partner
780.969.1475 
[email protected]

Jingjing Dou, MSc, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt 
Manager
780.394.8008 
[email protected]

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