Drywall, the long, thin sheets of chalky white material used to create the walls in homes and businesses, is a favorite of contractors for its affordable price and ease of installation. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery reports that 15 million tons of drywall is produced in the U.S. every year. Only a fraction of that drywall ends up being recycled because many people are unsure where to take it. We share ideas for finding recyclers who can turn used drywall back into useable products.

What is drywall?

drywall-recycling.jpgThe primary component in modern drywall (also known as plasterboard, wallboard and by the brand name Sheetrock) is gypsum, a naturally occurring substance made of calcium sulfate and water. Calcium sulfate is found in ancient seabeds that have dried up, leaving rich deposits of sulfates behind. Gypsum is naturally fire resistant, making it a perfect material for home construction. When combined with water, gypsum makes a paste that can easily be applied to surfaces or modeled into shapes (for example, the long panels that form your walls). To make drywall panels, gypsum is combined with thickening agents, spread on top of long sheets of paper and dried in a kiln. The most common size for drywall sheets is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, although they also come in 10-foot and 12-foot lengths. While drywall is the most common item made from gypsum, the material has several other uses. Gypsum is great for neutralizing the pH of acidic soils. It helps retain water in sandy soils and it softens clay soils. Composters and fertilizer manufacturers often include it in their products because of its soil amendment properties, and cement makers use it to keep cement from setting too quickly.

Why is it important to recycle drywall?

The Construction and Demolition Recycling Association notes that there are two bad things that can happen to landfilled drywall. If drywall gets wet, the sulfates in the gypsum can leach into ground water and cause diarrhea if consumed. Wet gypsum can also emit hydrogen sulfite under the right conditions. Besides giving off an offensive rotten egg smell, the gas can be toxic at very high levels. If drywall is incinerated it can create sulfur dioxide gas, which is also poisonous. Add these drawbacks to the fact that drywall can easily be recycled and turned into new products, and you have multiple reasons to make sure your drywall goes to a recycler and not into a dumpster.

Important first steps in recycling used drywall

There are two important things to consider before you start ripping down older drywall. Structures built before 1978 may have asbestos in their joint compound, which seals the gaps between sheets of drywall. Asbestos can cause lung cancer through even minor exposure. If you suspect your drywall may have asbestos, you will need to hire a qualified removal company to take it out. They will need to treat it as hazardous waste and dispose of it properly. Older walls may also contain coats of lead-based paint, another hazardous material. Again, it is important to take care when removing and disposing of lead-based paint. If the paint is disturbed and fine particles are inhaled, they can cause a wide range of health problems, from high blood pressure to nerve disorders.

How can I recycle drywall?

Since gypsum has so many uses (including making new drywall), it is relatively easy to recycle. Recyclers remove any contaminants, such as screws and nails, and separate the paper from the gypsum. The gypsum can then be ground into a powder or turned into pellets. The resulting material is sold to manufacturers that use gypsum for different applications. Some paper usually stays mixed in with the gypsum, which affects its ability to resist fire. For that reason states limits the amount of recycled drywall that can go into new drywall. However, this previously used material still makes a good garden supplement. The hard thing for the average homeowner is figuring out where to take drywall for recycling. If you have a contractor involved in your remodeling project, he or she may have ideas and resources. Just make sure that person knows about your desire to have items like drywall recycled — preferably before you hire them. Drywall cannot be recycled through curbside programs, but your community may have a bulky waste program for larger items. These collection programs typically operate one of two ways: by appointment or on a regular collection schedule. Contact your local solid waste district to see if it offers a bulky collection service and how it works. You should also inquire whether your community’s bulky waste collection program will take construction materials (as some do not) and if they recycle them or simply landfill them. In some communities it is possible to take drywall and other construction materials to a local recycling center. Use 1-800-RECYCLING’s recycle search tool to find a drywall recycler near you, then check with the recycler to find out if it has any special requirements. Some recycling centers will only take unused drywall, while others will take demolition materials. Stores that sell used building materials, such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores, may be able to take unused drywall. Call your local ReStore to see if it will accept it.