Basic Information about the Built Environment
EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2017 – 2022 identifies advancing SMM in the Built Environment – that is, our nation’s roads, buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure – as a key priority area.
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The built environment touches all aspects of our lives, encompassing the buildings we live in, the distribution systems that provide us with water and electricity, and the roads, bridges, and transportation systems we use to get from place to place. It can generally be described as the man-made or modified structures that provide people with living, working, and recreational spaces. Creating all these spaces and systems requires enormous quantities of materials.
Globally, consumption of materials continues to increase, with the greatest increases for construction minerals, ores, and industrial minerals according to the International Resource Panel. Within the United States alone, billions of tons of concrete, steel, and wallboard will be required to construct, maintain, and operate our nation’s built environment resulting in substantial economic costs. As competition for natural resources continues to intensify due to global population and economic growth, the availability of materials will be subject to increased uncertainty. Furthermore, the extraction, transportation, use and disposal of these materials result in substantial environmental impacts, including emissions to the air, water and land; energy and petroleum consumption; use of non-renewable mineral resources, expenditure of fresh water, and land and habitat use.
SMM, the use and reuse of materials in the most productive and sustainable way over their entire life cycles, can help the U.S. address its material and resource needs in the built environment while remaining competitive in the global economy. The application of SMM in the built environment includes practices such as:
- Beneficially using industrial non-hazardous secondary materials as replacements for virgin materials in construction (e.g. coal ash, foundry sand, iron and steel slag, etc.), and
- Sustainable management of construction & demolition (C&D) materials.
Applying SMM principles in the built environment is beneficial both economically and environmentally. For example, EPA’s Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report found that in 2012, recycling C&D materials produced just under $10 billion in wages and over 175,000 jobs. In addition to economic benefits, advancing SMM in the built environment has the potential to conserve resources, reduce waste, enhance resiliency to natural and man-made disasters, and minimize the environmental impacts of the materials we use. For information on the end-of-life management of C&D materials, see EPA ‘s webpage Construction and Demolition: Material-Specific Data.