Marine creatures shown at risk on David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series may not have struck viewers employed in construction as having any bearing on their working lives.
Nor indeed may the government’s Resources &Waste Strategy, published in December, the publicity for which was largely based on household recycling.
But they do.
Blue Planet transformed public attitudes to plastic pollution in the world’s oceans into a demand that politicians and others “do something” – which the Considerate Constructors Scheme now is.
Some will see the prospect of tighter rules on waste disposal and recycling as an unwelcome additional cost.
But could the new policy emphasis on avoiding waste while encouraging recycling and reuse save construction firms money by making them rethink what they use and how?
The government’s strategy looks to two areas of innovation for the industry: reducing the amount of material it uses, and extending the ‘polluter pays’ principle to its materials.
It said the construction, excavation and demolition sector is estimated to have produced around 120 million tonnes of waste in 2014 and while it had successfully diverted waste from landfill – so avoiding the landfill tax – “there is considerable scope for further improvement”.
Fundamental changes in the industry with digitalisation, off-site manufacturing and new materials offer “huge potential for increasing resource efficiency”, the strategy says, and a ‘roadmap’ towards zero avoidable waste would be issued next year.
Although construction’s efforts to reduce the use of landfill looks superficially good, waste industry consultant Robin Latchem says: “Construction waste is a problem. The industry may claim around 90% diversion from landfill but there is a huge element of energy recovery through incinerators in that, rather than recycling, and precious little attempt at reuse or waste reduction.
“Indeed some research suggests that 13% of products delivered to construction sites are sent to landfill without being used.”
Latchem says the industry’s organisation creates further difficulties as “the chain from client and architects through to main contractors and sub-contractors makes a disciplined approach to sustainability very challenging.
“It’s been estimated that 70% of a product’s recyclability comes at the design stage, which is often down to the attitude of clients or architects. It is only with the trend to modular buildings that we can see a chance for moving the industry to recycle and reuse more materials.”
Anna Surgenor, senior sustainability advisor and circular economy programme lead at the UK Green Building Council, says: “Construction, demolition and excavation in the UK currently produces a staggering 120 million tonnes of waste each year. This is nearly 60% of all UK waste.
“There is evidently a huge opportunity for the sector to improve and we support Defra’s work with the Green Construction Board to establish a definition of zero avoidable waste in the sector.”
Anyone puzzled by Surgenor’s job title had best get used to the increasingly trendy term ‘circular economy’. This describes an economy in which materials are whenever possible reused or recycled rather than discarded in landfills or anywhere else. There is probably an example of a ‘circular’ initiative coming to a site near you soon.
The government will also consult on ‘extended producer responsibility’ for ‘certain construction materials’ yet to be defined. Extended producer responsibility exists notably in electrical and electronic goods – and means producers are responsible for their goods once consumers have finished with them.
All but the smallest producers of waste electrical and electronic equipment must join a producer compliance scheme and contribute to the cost of the industry providing for the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal for its goods.
The idea is that contributing to these costs gives that industry an incentive to reduce waste by making products that are ‘greener’.
Some industries have got in first with voluntary schemes. For example, the Resource and Waste strategy quoted the case of the VinylPlus Initiative, a commitment by the PVC industry’s value chain to recycle 800,000 tonnes by 2020 across Europe – equivalent to one-third of all PVC that becomes waste.
Defra says old window frames are the most commonly recycled PVC items, followed by cables, flooring, pipes and fittings and rigid films. Recycled PVC can be used in windows, pipes and floorings.
Plastic of all types is a construction material ripe for recycling. Considerate Constructors Scheme chief executive Edward Hardy says the idea for work on reducing and recycling plastics came from member firms conscious of public concern.
The campaign’s Spotlight on Plastics and Packaging campaign aims to raise awareness of how the industry can reduce, reuse and recycle plastics and packaging and will feature a best practice hub.
Hardy says: “Last year our industry partners said plastic and packaging was causing concern to them and the public, partly following David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series, so we decided to highlight it.”
He says 95% of scheme members felt the industry should do more to reduce its consumption of plastics and packaging, but 51% had little understanding of the regulations involved and 31% admitted they frequently used un-recylable plastics and packaging.
The Considerate Constructors Scheme says the industry is the second largest consumer of UK plastics and so should “drastically reduce [its] consumption of plastics and packaging”.
This is easier said than done since even household recycling is bedevilled by confusion over whether or not different types of plastics are recyclable. That best practice hub should prove useful.
Hardy says: “The scheme’s campaign provides resources, practical support and guidance helping everyone to take effective measures to tackle this issue.
“While considerable progress is being made – with over 76% of scheme-registered construction sites setting targets to reduce, reuse and recycle waste – it is clear that a concerted effort to raise further awareness, and to provide the necessary support, is needed to achieve this drastic reduction in waste from plastics and packaging.”
Although plastic is the most concerning pollutant, other materials such as cardboard, paper and timber can be used for packaging and be recycled.
Hardy says research from the government-backed recycling advisory body WRAP showed that 23% of UK-produced plastic was used in construction and that this made up 60% of skipped waste.
“People are trying to do things differently,” he says. “Examples include plastic sheeting on floors being replaced by cardboard and one company that wrapped doors in plastic is now using cardboard, and moving to hanging doors at the end of the process so they do not have to wrap them at all.
“There are clearly imaginative things to be done and the industry must rise to the challenge.”
Industry bodies are taking note of the shifting climate of opinion. A Home Builders Federation spokesman says: “Via our technical team we track construction waste streams as a tool to measure against our peers and develop any strategies and best practice out of that. For example we have been running a bespoke, reduced-size plasterboard length to reduce wastage.”
Many companies built to storey heights of 2,325mm, yet the standard plasterboard height is typically 2,400mm long thus wasting some 75mm of each board.
“By working with the sector, the introduction of a 2,300mm plasterboard has been produced as ‘bespoke standard’ which eliminates this waste, with the only waste left being that created around openings and services,” the HBF says.
“It’s a simple yet very effective initiative that demonstrates the kind of thing the industry is doing in this space.”
Brain Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, can see the policy climate changing but fears it will leads to unreasonable costs for smaller firms.
“We recognise the need to reduce waste in the construction industry and to be more resourceful with the materials we use,” Berry says. “However, the government must ensure that any new regulations are not too onerous on small construction firms, especially at a time of great economic uncertainty.
“We would be happy to work with the government to tackle this issue in a sensible manner and avoid introducing any regulations that have a disproportionate impact on construction SMEs,” he adds.
Berry suggests ministers could usefully look at “over-packaging of construction products and materials, which is an issue that has been flagged by our members”.
Domestic recycling took a long time to become a normal part of households’ lives, but is now commonplace.
Will the same happen one day in construction?
Beating the criminals
It’s bad enough for the environment when construction waste ends up in landfills, but worse when it is fly-tipped on unauthorised sites by unscrupulous drivers dealing with equally unscrupulous contractors.
This is another issue that has reached a critical mass in public concern, leading to the Independent Review into Serious and Organised Crime in the Waste Sector, whose report was issued by the government last November.
It noted: “The intentional mis-description of waste is widespread in the construction and demolition industry, with hazardous waste frequently labelled as ‘inert’ to avoid the highest band of landfill tax.”
Producers – construction and demolition companies – “are technically responsible for ensuring their waste is handled responsibly [but] due to the complexities of several layers of sub-contractors being involved in many cases, this responsibility is, in practice, devolved from waste producers…even within legitimate waste businesses, construction waste can easily be inaccurately described as ‘inert’.”
The review also expressed concern about materials being described as ‘muckaway’, which it called “an essentially meaningless term which implies ‘inert’ rubble but can in fact include everything from steel to asbestos”.
Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, went as far as to call waste crime the ‘new narcotics’, but said: “What we know about is almost certainly only a fraction of what occurs.”
This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of The Construction Index magazine