If you are renovating your home and removing plaster walls and ceilings, you’re probably unsure of what to do with the plaster.
Can you throw it out with the rest of the materials? Exactly what do you do with the plaster debris once it’s down?
Disposing of plaster is complicated and takes careful consideration.
Is a Wall Just a Wall?
First, a bit about plaster versus drywall. Plaster walls are found primarily in homes built before 1950 and have a meticulous design. Builders made these walls to last.
The inner wall is created from a lath, or skeleton of thin wood strips nailed a few inches apart, and then plaster is applied wet to create the smooth surface.
As it dries, the plaster creates a “key,” which helps adhere the outer layers to the frame.
Plaster takes a minimum of three layers and each has to have adequate drying time, during which all other construction stops.
The entire process costs about triple in labor compared to what drywall does, which is why most modern construction uses drywall.
Drywall is a wall-building material made of gypsum layers, bound by heavy paper like cardboard. It rose to popularity during World War II when housing had to be built at a furious pace.
Slow, artful plaster designs took far too much time to be practical or profitable. Manufactured in large boards, drywall is simply screwed into a house’s studs, and after hanging a few together, you have an instant wall.
Builders then use tape to smooth over the cracks between boards and nail indentations to create a flat and cohesive surface.
Manufacturers produce drywall sheets in sizes from 4 x 8 feet to 4 x 16 feet and in thicknesses from ¼ inch to 1 inch.
It is lighter, easier to work with, and faster to construct a home using drywall, which is why it’s so popular.
Some historians believe drywall, which was produced en masse by the American Gypsum Company under the brand name of “Sheet Rock,” was a temporary construction material, but its use was anything but. Long after WWII, drywall remains the preferred way of creating walls in most modern home construction.
Risks Found In and On Plaster
Although it is more soundproof and fireproof than drywall, the smooth finishes and refined look of plaster are not without drawbacks.
Plaster cracks, and it also peels. Try to pound a nail in the wall, and it’s hard as a rock.
The materials in plaster walls can also contain coal soot, asbestos, and traces of lead.
You have to be careful demolishing plaster walls and equally as careful disposing of the material, which when inhaled as dust can poison you.
The fibers of asbestos irritate your lungs, and large and consistent exposure can scar your lung tissue.
People with extended asbestos exposure have developed lung diseases, including lung cancer.
Assessing Your Risk
A general rule is that if a home was built between the 1940s and 1970s, it most likely contains asbestos in its walls and ceilings, either in the plaster to strengthen it or in the insulation, which commonly contained asbestos fibers during that time.
It may also contain lead in paint used on its surface.
But rules are meant to be broken. Don’t just assume your plaster is hazardous.
If you invest in testing, you can potentially save thousands of dollars in disposal fees, and have peace of mind that you will not be brewing toxic dust during demolition.
Asbestos cannot be seen with the naked eye, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
There are inexpensive asbestos tests available at home-improvement stores, some under $10. However, the EPA recommends an asbestos pro take samples rather than homeowners themselves because the risk of incorrect testing is high if you try to do it yourself.
Keep in mind that people can make mistakes with the gathering part of the testing.
Be warned. Some historians will be quick to dismiss any idea of plaster removal.
Many cracks can be repaired easily, and historians believe the plaster walls add to the charm and ambiance of an older home.
They might critique anyone who dares to remove plaster and remind you of the superior construction methods of the time. But if safety is at risk, it’s more important than aesthetics.
If you have decided those walls or ceilings have to go, make sure you do it right.
Prep for a Safe Deconstruction
If you are demolishing your plaster walls, make sure to cover the flooring with plastic before you start.
Wear an OSHA-approved face mask, cover your skin with long sleeves and long pants, and protect your head and eyes.
Experts recommend fighting the desire to take a sledgehammer to a plaster wall and smash it to bits, flying in all directions.
Remove in small parts, using a pry bar and trowel, and be mindful of creating dust as you work. The job isn’t done when the plaster is down.
Once the plaster coating is removed, the lath underneath must come out as well, board by board.
Old rusted nails and other hazardous elements may be present in the lath, so wear gloves. Some plaster walls have metal construction beneath the plaster rather than lath, so make sure you have the right tools to remove that.
Bad News: No Recycling or Reusing
We think nothing of creating furniture out of used wood pallets or garden mulch from used cardboard boxes.
Unfortunately, due to the potentially hazardous materials in plaster, you cannot recycle it.
Given the risks, you should never bury plaster debris in your yard as it can harm wildlife, soil, and groundwater. The only safe way to dispose of plaster is in a landfill, where staff have adequate training and protection.
Even though we live in a society that emphasizes the importance of reusing and recycling as much as we can, landfills play an integral role when it comes to potentially hazardous materials.
Disposal Tip: Consider the Weight
It’s a good idea to estimate how much plaster waste you will have before you begin your project.
You may be surprised at how heavy plaster can be, and the sheer amount of plaster used in the construction of some older walls in buildings.
If you are prying off a wall or ceiling, you have no idea the thickness of that wall before you start, so always overestimate.
The first step is to check with your local garbage and recycling provider. Log on to the website to see what their guidelines are for demolition debris, paint and hazardous materials.
You may also check your city or county’s public works division for household hazardous waste regulations.
Many local landfills will accept plaster waste within certain guidelines. Some must be double-bagged, with minimum thickness to the bags such as 3 centimeters.
Others have a weight limit per day, such as 125 pounds. This adds up fast!
Inexperienced renovators will fill a large bucket with broken plaster only to find out they can’t lift the bucket once it’s full.
Curbside pickup of construction debris, like masonry or plaster, is uncommon so you will need to make arrangements with your waste management company.
Making specialized appointments for plaster pickup and proper disposal can get expensive, which leads us to the next tip.
Rolling Disposal Containers
If you are preparing to demolish a whole room or more, rolling disposal containers are your friends.
You can rent a rolling dumpster from garbage disposal companies by the yard, so for example, one that holds 10 yards of debris, 15 yards, or more.
The description will help you visualize the amount of trash by saying, for example, “Holds 90 12-gallon trash bags.”
Some of the dumpsters are made for heavier items such as concrete, metal, and furniture. Knowing the heft of plaster, it’s best to rent a dumpster specifically designed for heavier items.
Pay close attention to what kind of material is accepted. Just because plaster is going in there doesn’t mean you can throw in anything you have lying around the garage or shed.
Most ban chemical liquids, batteries, tires, and electronics. Garbage disposal companies will allow you to rent the dumpster for a specified time and call when you’re ready for them to haul the debris away.
As outlined here, disposing of plaster is not an easy task but not impossible. It takes planning, consideration, and knowledge of local laws and guidelines to do it the correct way.
With this in mind, you should be prepared to be both mindful and environmentally responsible with your plaster debris. You are on your way to responsible renovation and lighter, simpler construction.
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